Wednesday 20 June 2018

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Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams' cold war turns to boiling point

Maria Sharapova (left) and Serena Williams in action earlier during the competition at Roland Garros
Maria Sharapova (left) and Serena Williams in action earlier during the competition at Roland Garros

Simon Briggs

In her autobiography, 'Unstoppable', Maria Sharapova describes her first visit to the Wimbledon Champions' Dinner, aged 15. "(I was) staring at Serena (Williams) through the crowd, with a single thought in my head, 'I am going to get you'."

That desire has never ebbed, even through a run of 18 defeats at her rival's hands and must be burning stronger than ever after Williams described the juicier elements of 'Unstoppable' on Saturday as "100 per cent hearsay".

Today on Court Philippe Chatrier, Sharapova can ram those words down Williams' throat - rather in the manner that Williams, herself, once threatened to make a lineswoman eat a tennis ball.

The froideur between the two old foes has become more of a deep freeze since the publication of Unstoppable - in which the word "Serena" appears exactly 100 times.

"The book was a lot about me," said Williams on Saturday. "I was surprised about that, to be honest. I was, like, 'Oh, OK. I didn't expect to be reading a book about me, that wasn't necessarily true'."

The last time they traded verbal volleys was in 2013, soon after Bulgarian male star Grigor Dimitrov, had transferred his affections from Williams to Sharapova.

Five years on, the hot takes have subsided into a passive aggressive cold war in which each claims that she has nothing but high regard for her rival and accuses the other of introducing unnecessary hostility to their relationship. It has become quite the soap opera.

In the autobiography, Sharapova suggests that "Serena and I should be friends" and claims their edgy relationship is due to Williams never recovering from her bitterness at losing the 2004 Wimbledon final.

"I heard that Serena told a friend, 'I will never lose to that little bitch again'," Sharapova wrote. Interestingly, this sentence is now missing from some editions of the book.

Sharapova's reading of events is as implausible as the idea - expressed a few pages earlier - that she finds Williams intimidating because "she has thick arms and thick legs and (is) really tall".

Sharapova is listed at 6ft 2in by the Women's Tennis Association website, Williams measures 5ft 9in. But it is not only Sharapova who wears tinted lenses.

Annexed

"I don't have any negative feelings towards her," insisted the same Williams who during January's Australian Open, tweeted a "speechless" emoji at a fan who supported Sharapova on social media. The moral high ground is not so easily annexed.

The phrase "grudge match" is hard to avoid, but will it be a classic? The fans at Chatrier today must hope that Williams's lack of match conditioning, which seemed a factor yesterday in her doubles defeat with sister Venus, will prevent this from being another procession.

Bear in mind that Sharapova has won only a single set off Williams in the past decade.

To change that statistic, Sharapova must stand her ground better than her peers when Williams enters beast mode. Thus far, the field has parted like the Red Sea at the coming of the chosen one.

The tournament's defining moment so far was midway through Williams' second-round match against Ashleigh Barty when she hit a winning return off her backhand side and emitted a bloodcurdling yell that turned the bashful Barty as white as a sheet.

Afterwards, coach Philippe Dehaes, who works with Daria Kasatkina, expressed frustration at the defeatist mentality that prevails on the tour.

"I have a lot of respect for her (Williams)" he told The New York Times, "but I'm angry when I think of the others. I say, 'Wake up, girls. Serena is nearly 37 years old. What does it take for you to wake up?'"

Sharapova should be spurred by the needle that Williams so artfully delivered in the interview room and by the sense that her nemesis is vulnerable as never before.

Williams may be striking groundstrokes with all her old authority this week, but with only seven matches under the belt of her catsuit this year, she is inevitably a step slower around the court and her reactions, particularly on return of serve, have been sluggish.

As she has repeatedly pointed out, returning from childbirth to play elite tennis is not something anyone can pull off overnight. Sharapova has also had her physical issues since coming back from her doping ban in April 2017, yet her return to the clay - her favourite surface - has seen a transformational sequence of 10 wins in 12 matches.

Williams' fine run here, so soon after the birth of Alexis Olympia in September, has been uplifting, but you can bet that when Sharapova went through the transcript of those questions and answers on Saturday, the single thought in her head was "I am going to get you".

© Daily Telegraph, London

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