The unconquerable foe

Seven women in the Open Era have won the career grand slam. Six of them would be considered legends of the sport: Serena Williams; Steffi Graf; Martina Navratilova; Chris Evert; Margaret Court and Billie Jean King. You could make a pretty strong argument those are the top six players in the history of the sport, in that order.*

*Newsday did a Top 10 list and had their list in that order, only with Monica Seles sixth, between Court and King. Tennis Magazine had a tournament of champions, featuring the greatest players of all time, and all six of these players reached the quarterfinals, four reached the semis, and Williams beat Graf in the final.

But, as mentioned, there is a seventh woman who has won the career grand slam. Also, she has won 30 singles titles and has been the No. 1 player in the world five different times. She has won at least one singles title for 13 consecutive years, something only Graf, Navratilova, and Evert have done. She has done all this despite countless injuries that have haunted her career. She is one of the most famous athletes on earth, routinely appearing on both Forbes’ richest athletes list and People’s Most Beautiful People list.

And yet, few people seem to realize that Maria Sharapova is an all-time great tennis player.

The reason, I suspect, is her almost-pathological inability to beat Serena Williams. Sharapova lost again on Monday, another blowout, 6-4, 6-1. It was the 18th straight time that Sharapova has lost to Williams. Eighteen.

I’d argue there is nothing quite like it in the history of sports.

Sure, there are great athletes who have dominated other great athletes. Roger Federer owned Andy Roddick. Tiger Woods seems to have a spell on Sergio Garcia. Affirmed would not left Alydar by. If you go to team sports, you can point out Michael Jordan’s spell over Patrick Ewing’s Knicks or that Bill Russell’s Celtics always seemed to triumph over Wilt Chamberlain or, as numerous Twitter followers point out, Tony Gwynn hit .415 against Greg Maddux.

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But this one’s different. The team sports comparisons are fun but not really applicable. Russell’s Celtics were routinely better than Wilt Chamberlain’s teams, same with Jordan’s Bulls, and Maddux still got Tony Gwynn out more than half the time. Sergio Garcia has never won a major championship whether Tiger Woods was in the field or not, and he has dominated in Ryder Cup competition against the United States. Alydar actually beat Affirmed three times. Other examples suggested by people (Michael Phelps over Ryan Lochte; Usain Bolt over Tyson Gay; Bobby Fischer over Boris Spassky) also fall short for various reasons.

The closest thing I’ve seen to the Williams-Sharapova destruction is Federer’s dominion over Roddick — Federer won 21 of their 24 matches, including all eight times they played at Grand Slam events. That’s obvious domination, but it’s not like this Maria-Serena thing. For one thing, while Roddick was a terrific player, he was not an all-time great. He won one grand slam title, never got past the fourth round at the French Open and had pretty lopsided records against other stars like Rafael Nadal (3-7) and Andy Murray (3-8).

For another, Roddick would — on the right day, in the right circumstances — push Federer to the breaking point. Roddick’s five-set loss in the 2009 Wimbledon Final is one of the sport’s all-time classics, and he occasionally won a match in Madrid or Miami. Roddick often forced a tiebreaker, at least.

Sharapova, meanwhile, cannot even put up a fight.

It’s so strange, because it didn’t start out that way. When Sharapova showed up on the scene at 17 years old, she was a genuine phenom. In 2004, she blasted through only her second Wimbledon, beating Lindsay Davenport in the semifinal. Then, in the final, she obliterated someone named, oh yeah, Serena Williams, 6-1, 6-4. The victory was mind-blowing for so many reasons. Williams was already a two-time Wimbledon champion. Sharapova was the third-youngest player ever to win Wimbledon. But the main shocker was that Sharapova had done the impossible: She overpowered Williams. Sharapova hit more winners. She was the aggressor. It was the most uneven Wimbledon final in a dozen years.

“She’s kind of like me, she doesn’t back off,” Williams said admiringly at the time. “She keeps giving it her all.”

There were a lot of stories back then about Sharapova being the future of tennis, and why not? She had a massive serve. She pounded the ball from both sides. On point after point, she unleashed a shriek that could terrify villagers.

Later in 2004, Sharapova and Williams faced each other in the WTA Championships. Sharapova won again, this time in three sets — although there is an asterisk to add. WIlliams strained a muscle in the second set and was forced to bloop her serves at half their usual speed. Even so, Williams took a 4-0 lead in the final set before fading with the injury.

“I don’t know how I stayed out there,” Williams said afterward. “I definitely thought about not finishing the match. But I like to fight, I guess.”

That was the last time that Maria Sharapova beat Serena Williams.

They did play a classic three-set match in Australia two months later. The Associated Press lede should amuse you: “Serena Williams finally beat Maria Sharapova in a big match.” That word, “finally,” sounds so preposterous now but that’s how the narrative seemed to be shaking out. Williams seemed to have no answers for Sharapova’s power game.

In this Australian Open final, Sharapova had three match points and twice served for the match. Williams won on sheer guts and guile. “I think it definitely lived up to expectations,” Williams said happily afterward.

At that point, they had played four times, each winning two. They had split their Grand Slam finals. Yes, this looked to be the rivalry that would make tennis for the next decade.

Only, well, no. They did not play for two years — Williams dealt with some injuries — but when they played in the 2007 Australian Open final, something fundamental had changed. Williams won 6-1, 6-2 and often glared at Sharapova, especially after getting hit with an overhead.

“I don’t like losing,” Sharapova said afterward. She had no idea that their rivalry was over before it began. Later, in Miami, Williams beat Sharapova 6-1, 6-1. The next 15 times they played, Sharapova would only twice force a third set. The first time, in Charleston, S.C., she lost that third set 6-1. The second time, in Miami, she lost that third set 6-0.

Williams crushed Sharapova in the Olympic gold medal match 6-0, 6-1. Williams beat her in straight sets in the French Open final, twice in the Australian Open final and in the Wimbledon semifinal. It isn’t just that Sharapova has not beaten Serena Williams in more than a decade. It is that she has never come even close.

And this is crazy, absolutely crazy. Maria Sharapova has won 74 percent of her matches against top-10 players, not counting her matches against Williams.

Serena Williams has won 79 perent of her matches against top-10 players, not counting her matches against Sharapova. Better, certainly, but not THAT much better.

Sharapova has a winning record against Venus Williams. She has dominated former No. 1 players Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. She has won 84 percent of her grand slam matches, not counting those crushing defeats against Williams.

Look, there is no question that Serena Williams has been a much better player than Sharapova. She’s a much better player than anyone. You can look at her record against just about any of the top players and see domination. Williams has won 10 of 11 against her good friend Caroline Wozniacki and 17 of 20 against Victoria Azarenka and 11 of 12 against Li Na. And so on.

But Maria Sharapova is an all-time great player. It’s stunning to see her get wiped out in match after match against the player who should be her greatest rival, the player Sharapova beat to first make her way on the international stage … unless …

Unless, of course, that’s part of the story here. Serena Williams doesn’t like to talk about her competitive fury. You see it on the court, of course, with the blood-curdling “Come ons!” she shouts at herself and the way she comes back time and again. But she generally keeps that stuff to herself.

And it makes you wonder: What did Serena Williams say to herself after losing those two matches to Maria Sharapova back in 2004? Did she make herself a promise? Throughout her remarkable career, Williams has had periodic letdowns where she plays poorly, makes a bunch of unforced errors, goes into weird funks and allows herself to get knocked out of big tournaments by Garbine Muguruza or Alize Cornet or Virginie Razzano or Roberta Vinci.

But she never goes into those lows against Sharapova. She is never off her game against Sharapova. She never lets down even a little against Sharapova.

“Doesn’t matter who I’m playing,” Serena Williams said after her latest win. “I just try to go out there and play the best I can.”

Maybe. Then again, maybe there is something a little bit more she saves up for Sharapova. And, as for the defeated, Sharapova ends every match the same way, talking about how she’s frustrated but also motivated. “She makes you go back to the drawing board,” Sharapova says. “Not just for me, but for other players too.”

In other words, there’s always the next time. Yes. For Maria Sharapova, sadly, there’s always the next time.

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