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Previewing the Australian Open Final: Can Maria Sharapova change her fortunes against Serena Williams?

After two weeks of tennis that featured the resurgence of a well-respected champion, close matches featuring contenders, and the long anticipated breakthrough of a youngster, we’ve finally reached the final of the Australian Open on the women’s side, and amid all the relative chaos and near-upsets of these two, we get to watch the world’s top two players face off.

 

For some reason, Serena Williams versus Maria Sharapova is always hyped up as a popcorn match, a scintillating encounter between two global icons that is bound to produce amazing tennis.  However, that’s rarely been the case between these two career grand slam champions.  Simply put, Serena has dominated Maria in the last decade, dropping only three sets to the Russian.  When these two met back in the 2004 Wimbledon Final, it was seen as a David vs Goliath type of matchup.  Here was Serena, by far the best player on the planet, taking on a relative unknown Russian teenager.  After Maria stunned Serena, the crowd at the All England Club, and the entire world in winning her first major title, the narrative quickly flipped into two equals slugging it out as the world’s best player for years to come.  Something, however, happened in 2005, and it’s been one way traffic ever since.  So what does Maria need to do if she wants to win her second Australian Open title and break her long drought against Serena?  And what does Serena need to do if she wants to break the tie among her, Chris Evert, and Martina Navratilova for most majors all-time?

 

The Matchup

Rankings: Serena Williams 1, Maria Sharapova 2

Head-to-Head: Serena 16-2 Maria (Serena leads 4-1 in majors)

Last Meeting: 2014 Miami Semifinals, Serena defeats Maria 6-4, 6-3

Last Three-Set Match: 2013 Miami Final, Serena defeats Maria 4-6, 6-3, 6-0

Last Sharapova Win: 2014 Tour Championships Final, Maria defeats Serena 4-6, 6-2, 6-4

How Serena Williams got here

R1: defeated Alison Van Uytvanck 6-0, 6-4

R2: defeated Vera Zvonareva 7-5, 6-0

R3: defeated (26) Elina Svitolina 4-6, 6-2, 6-0

R4: defeated (24) Garbine Muguruza 2-6, 6-3, 6-2

QF: defeated (11) Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 6-2

SF: defeated Madison Keys 7-6(5), 6-2

How Maria Sharapova got here

R1: defeated Petra Martic 6-4, 6-1

R2: defeated Alexandra Panova 6-1, 4-6, 7-5

R3: defeated (31) Zarina Diyas 6-1, 6-1

R4: defeated (21) Peng Shuai 6-3, 6-0

QF: defeated (7) Eugenie Bouchard 6-3, 6-2

SF: defeated (10) Ekaterina Makarova 6-3, 6-2

Average Ranking of Opponents: Serena Williams (67.3), Maria Sharapova (67.5)

 

What Must Serena Williams Do to Win

After looking at the lopsided head-to-head record between these two, it would be easy to say that all Serena needs to do if she wants to win the match on Saturday is simply show up.  However, Serena hasn’t necessarily looked her best down under.  She’s reportedly dealing with a breathing issue or cold of some sort that has made things difficult, but she’s also had difficulty beating opponents we would normally expect her to demolish.  Case in point: in the fourth round against Garbine Muguruza, most expected Serena to exact her revenge on the Spaniard.  Muguruza stunningly dismissed Serena at Roland Garros last year in the second round, using a strong hard-hitting game to hit directly at Serena down the middle of the court before pulling the trigger.  After a lopsided loss like that, Serena normally takes the rematches personal and has a tendency to dominate the opponent (for an example, just look at Maria Sharapova).  That didn’t really happen to start the match against Muguruza: Garbine was able to play the same offensive game that befuddled Serena in Paris by refusing to give the American angles to work with and by having the ball land back on Serena’s side before she could set up for a kill shot.  Serena did improve during the match and produced two fairly lopsided sets to knock out the twenty-fourth seed, due in part to Muguruza pulling the trigger on all sorts of ill-advised shots.  In the semifinals, against a younger American (in which Serena has lost only once—to Sloane Stephens in the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinals) and with the end to her nineteenth major title in sight, Serena didn’t do what we have seen from her time and time again.  Normally, Serena turns up her game for the last few rounds, turning from somewhat vulnerable to unbeatable.  She did look that way against Dominika Cibulkova in the quarterfinals, so most rational tennis fans would have thought Madison Keys, a major semifinal debutante and hobbled with a leg injury, would get a front-row seat to a tennis lesson from the world’s best.  Instead, Keys snatched a break in the first set from Serena, and while the world number one eventually turned it around by taking the first set in a tiebreak and running away with the second, Keys was still able to save eight match points against Williams with excellent shot-making and her power game, much to the delight of the Melbourne crowd and consternation of Serena.

 

Serena Williams had some unusual difficulties in putting away opponents this tournament, but she’s still in the final. (Source: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images AsiaPac)

All of that to say, we’ve only seen Serena put together one comprehensive, Serena-styled beatdown in this tournament.  So there is a possibility that Williams could in fact fall to Sharapova if she’s not at her best.  It will be difficult for Maria, however; Serena is simply better to some degree in all facets of the game.  If Serena wants to prevent it from being a contest though, she knows exactly what gameplan works against the Russian.  As with her game against everyone, it begins with Serena’s serve.  Maria may be anointed as the best returner in women’s tennis, but Serena is easily the best server.  She has the ability to hit any part of the service box with a variety of speeds, angles, and spins.  Maria’s ability to return well is aided by the fact that most women on tour are simply comfortable with serving only one or two ways and at only a few places in the service box.  Once patterns are figured out, Sharapova can simply wait and pounce.  She can’t do that against Serena with any regular success as Serena loves to mix up her serve’s location from point-to-point.

 

One area of Maria’s game that Serena has always been able to exploit has been Sharapova’s movement.  Though analysts during the Australian Open this year have lauded Sharapova for her improved ability to move around the court, Maria simply isn’t as quick and light on her feet as Serena.  Stretching Maria out to one side or the other has always been an excellent tactic, as it not only opens up the other side of the court for an easy winner (should Maria get to first angled ball), but because Maria has a tendency to go for a winner if she begins to feel that she’s being pushed around.  Rather than try to be defensive (never a strong suit for the Russian) and scramble from side to side, Sharapova attempts to pull the trigger on shots that will result in one of three things: a winner for Maria, gets the rally back to a neutral point, or she loses the point.  Generally the last option has been the most common, especially against Serena, where Maria knows she needs to put that little something extra, whether it’s more power, placement closer to the lines, or both in order to avoid Serena being able to get to the ball easily.  For Williams, it’s been easy to coax these kinds of errors and tactical mistakes from Maria; it appears that once she steps on the court against Serena, Maria’s gameplan is to try to out-do Serena’s aggression, and Serena simply lets Maria continue to hit out until she loses control and the match.  That’s not to say Serena Williams plays a counterpuncher’s game against Maria Sharapova.  In fact, Serena loves to go on the offensive against the Russian, and she would have certainly lost more matches to Sharapova had Serena not played an aggressive baseline game.  However, Serena doesn’t need to push her aggression to the max to beat Maria; unlike Maria, who needs to (or at least thinks she needs to) play with little margin for error in order to beat Williams, Serena knows that if she can simply pull Maria off the court enough times during rallies in a match, the cumulative pressure Maria will feel will result in more errors from the Russian’s racquet and more winning opportunities for Williams.

 

What Maria Sharapova Must Do to Win

Every now and then, Tennis Channel will replay the 2004 Wimbledon final between Serena and Maria, and every time I catch some of the match, the one thing that stands out to me (other than Maria’s silence—and I’m someone who doesn’t mind the grunting!) is that Maria won that Wimbledon final not with her serve or her forehand.  It was her backhand that was the shot that got her the title.  In that match, Sharapova used her backhand to great effect: she created sharp cross-court angles that weren’t there; she pushed Serena on her heels with her depth on the shot, and she used the backhand slice to neutralize rallies when she needed.  When comparing the Wimbledon final to the Maria Sharapova of today, it’s almost as if you’re watching a completely different person.  Maria has become so reliant on her serve and forehand—and the power and pace she can generate from both—to win matches that it seems she’s forgotten that her backhand can cause great damage.  In Melbourne this tournament, we have seen Maria start to employ the slice a bit more in matches, using it a couple of times against both Bouchard and Makarova.  It’s an excellent change-up from Sharapova; for a player who is known for her pace, giving her opponent a ball in the middle of a rally with none of it forces her opponent to generate her own pace and has the ability to result in unforced errors.  Serena, obviously, is capable of handling shots like that, but Maria has got to give Serena different looks during rallies.  Playing the style of “hit hard, then hit harder” has gotten Maria nowhere in the last decade against Serena.  Perhaps by giving Serena some shots with varying speeds, depths, and heights, it will cause some momentary confusion in Williams’s mind.

 

Maria Sharapova’s serve has looked quite good during the Australian Open, and if she wants to win the final, she’ll certainly need to keep it up.  Against both Bouchard and Makarova especially, Maria was potent when she served down the middle, but her serves out wide were also effective in allowing Maria to have the advantage from the first shot. Against Serena, she’ll have to make sure her serve is the weapon that we’ve seen in the last few rounds.  Throwing in tons of faults, whether it forces her to make a second serve or results in a double fault, is a recipe for disaster against a player who loves to tee off against second serves (and understands a player’s serving patterns arguably just as well as Maria does—something Serena doesn’t get a lot of credit for).  Maria could also try spinning in or trying some off pace serves, just to try to throw off Serena’s rhythm on the return.  There’s no guarantee that that kind of strategy will work, as a soft serve is a huge target for Williams to turn into a return winner, but in recent years, she has struggled a bit during matches when she’s had to deal with the occasional slower first serve thrown in with speedy ones.  Additional variety on the serve, in the forms of the kick serve and body serve, may also have the same desired effect in throwing Serena off of her return game.  In all honesty though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Maria attempt a kick serve, and while I’m sure she does occasionally throw in a body serve, they are few and far between.  Still, it is imperative that Sharapova provide Serena with different looks; for Maria to win this match, she’s going to have play with more variety than she normally does.

 

Who Wins?

In some of their more recent encounters where Maria Sharapova has had a slim chance to break the streak, she’s consistently come out of the gates stronger than Serena Williams.  In the 2013 Miami final, she took the first set playing convincingly superior tennis.  In the 2013 Roland Garros Final, she got up a break in the first set.  If Maria is going to win her sixth major title, she is going to have to replicate this: take advantage early of Serena trying to ease her way into the match and get up at least one break.  The problem in both of those examples and others where Sharapova has taken an early lead is that the lead has proven unsustainable.  Serena wakes up and rights the ship, seizing control of the rallies and the match from Maria en route to yet another victory.  Serena’s been slower than usual in doing this as detailed above, dropping first sets and making things more difficult for her early on in matches during this tournament.  That gives hope to Maria, but is it a false hope?

 

There’s no question of determination here: both players clearly want to win this title and have different underlying motivations to be named 2015 Australian Open champion.  For Serena, it’s a chance to move into third all-time (second in the Open Era) in singles major titles.  For Maria, winning a major title would certainly be nice, but snapping that long losing streak would give her massive confidence in future bouts with Serena.  In the end, I think there’s a difference in the strategies the two players need to employ in order to win.  For Serena, she knows what she needs to do to beat Maria, because she’s done it so many times before.  It’s already part of the gameplan; she just needs to execute it well.  For Maria to win this match, however, she needs to change her gameplan, diversifying her tactics against Serena while still being capable of producing blistering groundstrokes and superb serves.  It seems less likely that a player who’s experienced so much success in her career playing a certain way would all of a sudden change it up for one match.

 

Though the scoreline is sure not to be as lopsided, the result will be the same as the 2007 Australian Open final. (Source: Mark Dadswell/Getty Images Sport)

As a result, Serena is likely to win yet another Australian Open title, defeating Maria Sharapova in two sets.

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