Second shot at Serena for Sharapova

The last time they met, Serena Williams pummeled Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final. The two meet again, this time in the fourth round at the Sony Ericsson Open.

Updated: March 27, 2007, 3:53 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- This rematch deserves a catchy nickname, like any sequel to a memorable prizefight.

May we suggest the Brawl on Biscayne Bay?

In this corner, at 6-foot-2, No. 2 Maria Sharapova, seeking to erase the image of the drubbing she took last time around. In the opposite corner, at 5-foot-9, No. 18 and re-ascendant, Serena Williams, looking to repeat her dominating performance in the Australian Open final.

Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams
Dean Treml/AFP/Getty ImagesSerena Williams, right, is 3-2 lifetime against Maria Sharapova, including a blowout victory in the final of the year's first Grand Slam.
We'll leave poundage out of this. Last time we saw our heroines, in the Smackdown in Melbourne, a supposedly out-of-shape Williams completely dissed the people she calls "the doubters" by putting Sharapova on the ropes almost from the first shot, crushing the Russian to win her eighth Grand Slam event.

In the tennis equivalent of the boxing ritual called the weigh-in, each player put her own spin on their previous meeting during press conferences 24 hours apart.

Sharapova: "It was one of those days where she played great tennis and I wasn't there."

Williams: "I think she was there 100 percent. I just played well."

Sharapova: "I lost to Lindsay [Davenport] a couple years ago in Palm Springs [6-0, 6-0] and the next time I played her, I beat her. I didn't come into the match thinking that I had lost to her 0-0, or any other losses that I've had."

Williams: "When I'm playing well, I've said it a thousand times, no one can beat me … when I'm playing well, it's very difficult for anyone  unless they're on the ATP Tour -- to beat me."

Somewhere between brashness and Zen calm lies the athlete's reliable mantra of it's-just-another-match, but somehow the intensity of the Serenapova rivalry wouldn't seem to allow for that. Three of the five times they've played have been in high-stakes finals.

Williams is picking her spots this season and took a six-week break from competition after the Australian. Sharapova, who took over the No. 1 ranking at that point despite the loss only to cede it again a few weeks later, looked as if some inner cog had been knocked loose in Melbourne.

She dropped a set in each of her first two matches in Tokyo, then withdrew from the semifinal with a strained hamstring. In the round of 16 at Indian Wells, she had a set on Vera Zvonareva but folded shockingly in the third as her serve betrayed her, much as it had in Australia.

It's reasonable, no matter what the combatants say, to look at this encounter as a potentially pivotal one -- even if it's a fourth round match. Players of this stature expect to win those.

Sharapova advanced by surviving an ugly tilt with Williams' usual sparring partner, sister Venus. With a slew of wind-assisted errors and double faults -- ball tosses danced around like Tim Wakefield knuckleballs -- Sharapova's win was more revelatory about her tenacity than her technique.

She looked shaky in losing the first set and called for her coach. Hitting partner Eric Basica stood in for Michael Joyce, who is absent due to a family illness, bringing Sharapova salt tablets and a dash of motivation.

"She's a warrior, and sometimes she needs to be reminded of that," Basica said.

Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova
Year
Event
Winner
2007
Australian Open Final
Williams
2005
Australian Open Semis
Williams
2004
Tour Championships Final
Sharapova
2004
Wimbledon Final
Sharapova
2004
Miami
Williams
The Australian Open final "is over with," he added. "She's fine. After Australia, she struggled in Palm Springs. To bounce back and get a win like this could set her up for the whole year."

Williams' match Monday was ugly in a different way. She hasn't been happy with the way she's played here, but in fairness, she had to deal with more than Lucie Safarova.

A spectator loudly heckled her throughout the match, spewing some racial bile in the late going that finally prompted Williams to make a formal complaint to the chair umpire. Security personnel removed the man and police banned him from the grounds.

The vitriol was clearly overheard by many fans, including Williams' sisters Isha and Lyndrea and "Sex and the City" actress Kristin Davis, who has been the family's guest this week and waited for Serena after the match wheeling a carrier that held the player's two dogs.

"It's always something with me," Williams said in the half-laughing, half-choked-up tone she gets when she is emotional, leaning her head against the table where she sat talking to reporters.

Venus left Key Biscayne after her loss, possibly depriving the tournament of an intriguing visual. She is listed as her sister's coach on the official WTA sign-up list for on-court coaching, and actually served in that capacity for Serena's second-round match.

"If she's not back tomorrow I'm going to sign up with my dad or something," Williams said. "She was a good coach the other night when I called her out, too. Darn it."

While Serena hasn't been an advocate of on-court coaching in general, having Venus lope out onto stadium court during a set break might have been a potent psychological weapon.

Or maybe not. Both Williams and Sharapova know how to win despite distractions.

Williams said Monday that they have the rest of their careers to play each other, but even though one is just 19 and the other 25, who could possibly guess how many more times we'll get to see this intriguing matchup on the card? Last year at this time, with Williams injured and apparently ambivalent, people were wondering whether their short but eventful history was complete.

Someone should bring a bejeweled belt to present the winner at center court, as long as both players bring their best shots to this bout.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.

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