Thursday 26 April 2018

Best of enemies resume battle

Serena Williams acknowledges the crowd after beating Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final earlier this year. The pair meet again in today’s semi-finals at Wimbledon
Serena Williams acknowledges the crowd after beating Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final earlier this year. The pair meet again in today’s semi-finals at Wimbledon

Daniel Schofield

Some rivalries are born of a shared greatness that elevates both players on to a higher plane. Others are based on mutual antipathy, mistrust and the occasional flash of malice, such as that between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

Bad blood that stems back 11 years to Sharapova's breakout win here as a 17-year-old on Centre Court and incorporates a rally of withering personal attacks will be renewed in their semi-final clash today.

Even before you consider the likely decibel level readings, it has all the ingredients of an explosive encounter between the two dominant figures in women's tennis.

Their dominance, though, applies to different spheres. On court, there is little comparison. Williams holds 20 grand slam singles titles, two short of Steffi Graf's record, to Sharapova's five.

Their head-to-head record makes for even more brutal reading. Since 2005, Williams possesses a 16-0 record versus Sharapova, who has only managed to take a single set in their previous 12 encounters. Such is the 33-year-old's dominance that many American newspapers refer to it as the "un-rivalry".

In the commercial arena, however, it is Sharapova (28), who is the undisputed champion. Williams boasts nearly twice the career prize money but is a distant second to the Russian's off-court earnings.

With a phalanx of sponsors ranging from Evian to Tag Heuer as well as her own confectionery line (Sugarpova), Sharapova is the world's highest paid female athlete with estimated annual earnings of $29.7m, which puts her 26th in Forbes' unisex list that has Williams 21 places lower.

A steadily building cocktail of jealousy and resentment was provided an added bitter twist in 2013 when Williams was overhead by a Rolling Stone journalist speaking to her sister Venus about another leading female tennis player.

"She begins every interview with 'I'm so happy. I'm so lucky' - it's so boring," Williams said. "She's still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it."

The automatic assumption was the black heart in question belonged to Grigor Dimitrov, who had just started dating Sharapova and was reportedly romantically involved with Williams in the past. In a half-hearted stab at damage limitation, Williams offered a simultaneous denial-stroke-apology to Sharapova.

"I made it a point to reach out to Maria, because she was inadvertently brought into the situation by assumptions made by the reporter," she said.

That olive branch was rather spectacularly spurned by Sharapova with a pointed reference to Williams' relationship with her coach Patrick Mouratoglou.


"If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids." Miaow.

If only Sharapova was able to use her claws to such effect on the court. The only victories that she has tasted over Williams came in 2004 at Wimbledon and the WTA finals in Los Angeles.

After that latter victory, Sharapova rather inadvisably posted on Facebook: "Here's the great dinner I had at Spago to celebrate beating Serena Williams for the second time in a row (remember Wimbledon last summer?)"

Williams certainly remembers. In January Williams said of the last defeat: "She was 17, super young and I think I was basically serving underhand" before adding a withering put-down of the only other active female player to hold a complete set of slams.

"She wants to improve her game, she wants to take it to the next level."

Both players were at pains to conceal their true feelings with the usual bout of platitudes after their quarter-final victories on Tuesday, although Sharapova seemed to have a mind blank about their history.

"There are definitely no secrets between each other's games," Sharapova said. "But I haven't played Serena here in 11 years. It will be an incredible moment for me to step out on Centre Court against her again."

In fact, their last meeting in SW19 was in the final of the London 2012 Olympics in which Sharapova was eviscerated 6-0, 6-1 in 45 minutes. No wonder her memory is proving selective. She has also lost three grand slam finals to Williams but some words of encouragement were provided from an unlikely source in Mouratoglou -even if they were couched with more barbed caveats.

"She does not have a mental block against Serena," Mouratoglou said. "Serena simply plays tennis much better than she does. For me, Azarenka is much better than Sharapova. There's no discussion. Sharapova is a great champion. She has great qualities. She fights incredibly and has tremendous mental strength. But at some stage, her level of play hits a ceiling.

"That said, Serena is not immune to a bad match, right? All streaks have to end, but even if she has a bad match one day and loses, we cannot say there is not an enormous gap in their level of play." (© Daily Telegraph, London)


Live, BBC1/Setanta, from 1.0

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