The rivalry that never happened
Maria Sharapova is looking at a scenario that even Roger Federer, in the darkest moments of his rivalry with Rafael Nadal, hasn't had to contemplate. Her legacy may be dominated by the fact she can't compete with Serena Williams.
At least Federer can say that Nadal's advantage, and superior head-to-head, was contained to clay. Sharapova, it seems, is hard put to compete Williams on any surface, at any time and place.
That's one of the major takeaways after the end of the Madrid combined event. (The other is that Rafael Nadal is as close as humanly possible to being unbeatable on clay. Yawn.) Much was made before Sunday's final between No. 1 Williams and No. 2 Sharapova. Partly because the top ranking was up for grabs, and partly because of the great strides Sharapova has made in her clay-court game.
Sharapova, we were often reminded, brought a 17-match clay-court streak into the final. (And she'd won 27 of her previous 28 clay matches, which includes her win at the 2012 French Open.) Meanwhile, Williams hadn't won a tournament in red clay in more than a decade (2002). Some pundits conveniently forgot that Williams herself was 28-1 on clay of any color or texture, starting from the beginning of 2010.
Sharapova also brought a significant advantage in age. She's just 26, while 31-year-old Serena is at that the point where every title you win is just an added blessing. As she told the media after she roughed up Sharapova again, 6-1, 6-4: "Who knows if I'll ever win another title? I just want to live in the moment and the dream every chance I get."
Extending her career to full stretch may end up costing Williams; heck, she may even lose another match to Sharapova, who has beaten her only twice but not since the fall of 2004 -- an absurdly long time. The women could meet again on red clay, perhaps even twice as they're both entered in Rome (this week) and the French Open. Sharapova will have chances to improve that dismal 2-13 head-to-head statistic, but it will be difficult for her to adequately soften the blow history will deal when the two women's careers are compared.
We've never had anything quite like this disparity between two truly outstanding players and consistent Grand Slam champions, at least not in recent memory. For example, Steffi Graf was 29-11 against Gabriela Sabatini, but the latter won but one Grand Slam title while Sharapova has a career Grand Slam.
There are two components in any match-up: the mental/emotional and the strategic/tactical. Sharapova is at a continuing disadvantage in both departments when it comes to Williams. You could see the doubt and even fear in the grim visage Sharapova presented through most of the Madrid final. By contrast, Williams was icy and dead serious. All you needed to know about the emotional factors in this match-up was there to see in the absolute indifference and lack of anything like mutual empathy or sympathy when the women met for the ritual postmatch handshake.
The strategic and tactical differences are easier to quantify. Sharapova's inconsistency at the service line is self-sabotaging, and her woes are compounded by the fact that Williams tees off with impunity on the good serves Sharapova does deliver. Sunday, we saw Sharapova's slow first step after the serve fully exposed. Time and again she was lucky just to get her racket on Williams' service return. You almost wanted to turn your face from the spectacle.
By contrast, Williams's serve -- said by so many to be the best ever in women's tennis -- consistently poses questions Sharapova is hard put to answer. Once again, a lack of quick reaction time on Sharapova's part becomes painfully obvious. Sharapova's success in clay owes in large part to the extra time the slow surface gives her against most women. Williams successfully takes that time away.
Right now it looks like Sharapova's only real hope lies in her age advantage. As the wear and tear increases on Williams, she will become more vulnerable. But realistically, and to be fair to Williams at her best, the truth is that this is a rivalry that never happened.