So much has changed since the last time Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova stared each other down from across the net, fists pumped and teeth bared as growls vibrated from their throats. After falling to Wiliams for a 19th time in their 2016 Australian Open quarter-final, Sharapova walked off the court and took the drug test that would change her life. A year later, Williams returned to Melbourne pregnant and tore through the draw without dropping a set.
In the years since, both women have failed to match those results for different reasons, but under the lights of the Arthur Ashe Stadium in the most absurd first-round draw in recent history, there was a sense of familiarity as Williams demolished Sharapova 6-1, 6-1 to move up 20-2 in one of the most famous head-to-heads of all time.
The shock of the draw and the build-up to Monday night combined to mark a opening-round occasion unlike almost any other. Beyond the obsession with their mutual animosity and the endless debates over whether a matchup with a 19-2 record deserves to be branded a rivalry, this is an important match because of their success.
Since their first meeting in 2004, they are the two most successful female players of the past 15 years. Williams stands light years ahead of Sharapova and the rest with her record 23 slams, but also no player since Sharapova has been able to consistently contend for and win big titles as she did for many years.
“Obviously, I’m going against a player that has won five Grand Slams and been in the final of many more and that’s not easy,” said Williams on-court after her victory. “So every practice after that was super intense.”
As the pair prepared to walk onto the court, Williams approached pre-match interviewer Rennae Stubbs with smile on her face, and she played with a similar relaxedness throughout. The American opened the match with an unreturned serve then held with a forehand winner. Sharapova followed suit, punctuating her opening hold with a loud cheer. There would be little else to celebrate.
As is so often the case, Williams and Sharapova seemed to be playing different matches. As an intense Sharapova fired missiles hard and flat, desperately trying to take control of the match, Williams amped up her serve but otherwise played calmly within herself. Rather than relying on her power, she rushed Sharapova with depth and viciously moved the ball from side to side, forcing the Russian onto the run.
Sharapova knew that high-risk tactics were her only chance against a stronger, faster and more intelligent opponent, but they were responsible for her countless errors throughout. Successive backhand and forehand errors gave Williams the first break at 3-1, then Sharapova offered up the second break with a netted backhand. By the end of the first set, Williams had struck nine winners to a near-flawless three unforced errors. Despite her aggression, Sharapova managed just three winners to 10 unforced errors.
In the second set, Sharapova began to find her range and pushed the six-time US Open champion more, but only in select games. The Russian generated two break points down 6-1, 2-1, but Williams scuppered both, saving the second with a running backhand down the line passing shot. Even the American’s movement, an issue since her comeback, seemed elevated against her bitter foe. Williams then took Sharapova’s insolence as an insult, rising to another level with her noise and intensity augmented as she broke quickly for a 6-1, 4-1 lead.
Sharapova generated four more break points at 6-1, 4-1, but each time Williams found a first serve or forced Sharapova into a difficult position or else came up with a winner of her own. It was the same sequence that has played out too many times since Williams’ 6-1, 6-2 slaughter of Sharapova in the 2007 Australian Open final, the match that flipped their encounters from battles to beatdowns.
“It’s not an easy road. It’s never been,” Sharapova said. “But I went through a shoulder procedure about four months ago. To find myself playing at a night match at the US Open with people excited about the matchup, it’s a pretty big deal. I’m fortunate to be a part of that. It’s easy to be discouraged after a match like this. But if I’m personally discouraged, I wake up tomorrow, I don’t feel like I want to go out, train, be better, that’s more discouraging than the result.”
After straight-sets losses in three successive slam finals, most recently a 6-2, 6-2 defeat to Simona Halep in the Wimbledon final, Williams has spent much of 2019 searching for the mental strength that has defined her career. In January, after failing to convert match points and losing to Karolina Pliskova in the Australian Open quarter-finals, she felt like she needed to rediscover her ruthlessness in the big moments, or, in her words, how to “go psycho”.
Monday night’s display was a throwback to days long gone when Williams’ dominance seemed so natural. As she progresses in the tournament, it may just have helped her remember what it’s like to put her foot on an opponent’s neck in a high stakes match and to never let go.