Women’s Final

Roland Garros Rewind: Thoughts on the Women’s Final

The latest meeting between the top two women in the world reached the usual conclusion.  Read about the last women’s match of 2013 on red clay.

That was…expected:  After two victories over Maria Sharapova in finals earlier this spring, including a comprehensive triumph on clay, Serena Williams came into the Roland Garros as an overwhelming favorite.  She extended her winning streak against Sharapova to twelve and her combined record against leading rivals Sharapova and Azarenka to 26-4.  Rivals?  She has none at the moment.

But also unexpected:  Sharapova gave Serena something to ponder in both sets rather than just folding meekly from the outset, as it seemed that she had in Madrid.  A first-serve percentage under 50% undermined her cause, but this final did not become the truncated rout that many expected.

Virginie who?  Not many players lose in the first round of a major one year and win it the next year, but the turnaround shows what an extraordinary competitor holds the No. 1 ranking.  Serena used that three-set collapse against Virginie Razzano in 2012 for motivation in 2013, when she lost just one set in the tournament.

Meet the new boss:  Same as an old boss.  In the last seven years, seven different women have won Roland Garros.  Serena became the first former champion to win there since Justine Henin’s last title in 2007.  But she had not won here—or even reached the final—since her first title here ignited the Serena Slam of 2002-03.  If not for the injury that hampered her so severely in Australia, Serena probably would have had another of those wrap-around achievements.

Sweet sixteen:  Serena’s sixteenth major marked her third since a prolonged, career-threatening injury absence.  She becomes the only active player on either Tour to win multiple titles at every major and closes within one of tying Roger Federer for the most major titles overall among active players.

Best of the rest:  If not for Serena, Sharapova probably would have defended her Roland Garros title, finished a second straight clay season undefeated, and swept all three of the WTA Premier Mandatory tournaments this spring.  Her season so far recalls Nadal’s campaign in 2011:  relentlessly dominant against everyone but a single opponent whom she simply cannot solve.  Sharapova has not lost before the final since February, has lost before the semifinals only once since Wimbledon last year, and has lost only one match to someone other than Serena since last October.

Vika the Vulture:  Although Sharapova defeated her in a ferocious semifinal, Azarenka passes her for the No. 2 ranking on Monday when the Russian failed to defend the title.  That jump could prove crucial at Wimbledon, where the No. 2 seed cannot face heavy favorite Serena until the final.  (Of course, the No. 3 seed might not either.)  Wimbledon does reserve the right to depart from rankings in its seedings, but they have little reason to adjust this time.  While Azarenka has reached consecutive semifinals at the All England Club, 2004 champion Sharapova survived the fourth round only once in 2007-12.

Pick your poison:  Even on clay, no woman can stay with Serena when she settles into her shot-making zone.  Matches crumble into routs or at best foregone conclusions.  That’s not ideal from a viewer’s perspective, but the experience of watching the best player in the world play her best tennis offers a special sort of entertainment. It’s not unlike watching Nadal on clay, at least against anyone but Djokovic.  Perfection without competition, or competition without perfection:  a difficult choice.

What are the odds?  Sharapova is 0-3 in major finals during odd-numbered years, 4-1 in major finals during even-numbered years.

Question(s) of the day:  How many majors will Serena win before she retires?  Can she pass Evert and Navratilova (18 each) for second place?  Should all-time leader Steffi Graf (22) start worrying?


Her Best Against The Best: Miami Women’s Final Preview

As her records in key rivalries and her stunning semifinal rout of Agnieszka Radwanska illustrated, Serena Williams plays her best against the best.  Never does that trait become more apparent than in her matches against Maria Sharapova, long envisioned by the media as Serena’s most plausible rival.  Since she escaped three match points against the world No. 2 at the 2005 Australian Open, the world No. 1 has dominated her meetings with a rival who defeated her in two key 2004 finals at Wimbledon and the year-end championships.  Most of those matches have featured little or no drama, including routs in an Australian Open, an Olympics gold-medal match, and a 2007 fourth-round encounter here.  From any of those episodes in their history, viewers can discern that the two women play essentially the same fearlessly aggressive game.  Serena simply executes that game more effectively, relying on the best serve in WTA history, superior athleticism, and greater ability to transition between offense and defense as necessary.

While the American’s brilliance has set the tone, Sharapova certainly has done little to help her own cause on these occasions.  A competitor who emanates such fierce confidence against virtually all other opponents tends to retreat into a muted shell of herself at the outset of or a short distance into these encounters, listlessly resigning herself to the inevitable.  Sharapova commits routine errors much more frequently than she does in the average match, and she generally struggles with her serve to a greater extent than one would attribute to the pressure of Serena’s stinging returns.  In short, fans have grown accustomed to seeing a diluted version of her in these matches when only the most intense version would suffice.  On an 11-match winning streak that has carried her within one victory of the rare Indian Wells-Miami double, Sharapova may have accumulated more confidence than usual to insulate her from the memories of previous meetings with Serena.

The Russian must assert herself early in the match to keep her spirits high, however, and the nearly flawless manner in which Serena burst out of the gate against Radwanska would have left anyone in the dust.  Firing an ace of the first point of her semifinal, the legendary champion delivered a much more forceful statement of intent than she had in earlier rounds.  Much ink has been spilled on Serena’s vaunted ability to elevate her form at the climax of tournaments, to which the motivation of facing an elite opponent probably contributes.  Sharapova likewise elevated her form near the end of Indian Wells to soar past the competition, so this final could produce breathtaking quality if both women can soar simultaneously to produce the tennis of which each is capable at her finest.

Recent Miami finals have seen little such tennis but instead have featured a sequence of routs as the energy in the stadium sags.  Realistically speaking, nothing in the recent history between the top two women in the world leads an observer to predict a match more than routine or modestly respectable.  Four times a finalist at the Sony Open, Sharapova likely will find herself holding the smaller trophy for a fifth time.  Her moment in the Miami sun will come, no doubt, for she plows through the draw here each year with a relentless regularity.  For now, Saturday remains Serena’s time to shine and the Sony Open the tournament where she will hold more titles than at any other.