FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – From a head-to-head perspective, Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova is about as one-sided as it can get.
Williams leads it, 19-2.
But from a “marquee matchup” standpoint – particularly for those who are not diehard, 12-months-a-year fans – they remain the gold standard individually. Not to mention collectively.
But it’s been a long time since the two have met on a regular basis in finals. And it’s been even longer since Sharapova has put a scare into the 37-year-old American.
Their head-to-head began 2-1 in Sharapova’s favour, including Wimbledon (above) and the year-end championships, both in 2004.
Since then Williams has gone on an 18-0 run.
The only recent blemish came in their last scheduled meeting. That was a highly anticipated one, in the fourth round of the French Open a year ago.
Williams couldn’t make the date.
A pectoral issue that made it extremely difficult for her to serve.
The poignancy of “maybe the last”
There may be some animus between the two, although Williams has had the final word where it counts, on the tennis court. There is exponentially more animus between the fan bases of both players, which is unpleasant.
And in the end, rather pointless. Because given where both are in terms of their careers at this point, meetings between the two biggest marquee attractions in the women’s game – still – are rare.
That 2018 French Open might have been Sharapova’s best recent chance to put a dent in the lopsided head-to-head. She had been playing very well; this was before her shoulder woes kicked in again.
And it was Serena who was fighting a more uphill battle. Last year’s Roland Garros was only her third tournament back after 16 months away as she gave birth to daughter Olympia (with all that came in the aftermath of that). And then, the pec issue.
This time? Who really knows what Monday night will bring.
Back spasms force Williams out of Toronto
In Toronto just a little over two weeks ago, Williams was hit with a case of back spasms. She said it’s something she has dealt with periodically during her career.
The American took the court clearly diminished against home-town girl Bianca Andreescu. And at 1-3 in the first set, she called it a day. Those touching moments with Andreescu on the court went all around the world.
(As it happens, the two were practicing side by side a few days ago at the US Open).
Typically, Williams said, they dissipated in 24-48 hours. But she wasn’t able to make the date a few days later in Cincinnati. She stuck around scenic Mason, Ohio for awhile, though, cheering on sister Venus as she made a run and enjoying some time with some members of her family.
Sharapova struggling with back-to-back
For Sharapova – only 32 but 15 years (!!) down the road from that first Wimbledon title won as a teenaged ingenue, the problem has been the shoulder.
For the better part of the last decade, it has always been the shoulder.
When she has played, she has played pretty well. But she plays one match – and then can’t answer the bell for the next one.
Since returning from her 15-month doping suspension, Sharapova hasn’t managed to get back into the top 20. She got very close; a year ago at this time, she hit No. 21.
But she has played just seven tournaments this season. There was nearly a five-month gap between the walkover she gave Daria Kasatkina in the second round of St. Petersburg after the Australian Open, and her return on grass in Mallorca in mid-June.
She played one match there, then lost to Angelique Kerber in the second.
Sharapova had tried to get back for the French Open, but couldn’t make it.
At Wimbledon, she was a second-set tiebreak win away from advancing against Pauline Parmentier in the first round. But then she retired down 0-5 in the third set (Yeah, we know).
In Toronto, she lost her opener to Anett Kontaveit in three sets. In Cincinnati, she defeated Alison Riske in the first round, then fell to Ashleigh Barty.
How her form is, and what she’s capable of on the biggest stage in tennis, is the question mark.
Serena at No. 8
Williams has made three Grand Slam finals since her return, including this year at Wimbledon.
So overall, her form at the majors has been very good – a big reason why she’s ranked No. 8 in the world right now. But in rank-and-file WTA events, she’s not performed.
Williams, too, has played just seven events in 2019. But they’ve all been big ones – three majors, two Premier Mandatories, and two Premier 5s.
After beating Victoria Azarenka in her Indian Wells opener – a cracking early-round match that had many of the elements this one does – she retired against Garbiñe Muguruza. In Miami, she won her opener and then gave Qiang Wang a walkover.
In Rome, she won her first-round match – and then gave sister Venus a walkover.
But her road to the Rogers Cup final included her first win over defending US Open champion Naomi Osaka, And if she didn’t play her best tennis in Toronto, she scrapped hard, and reached the final before having to retire.
You know she’s up for this
Coincidentally – or not??? – Williams hit with Grigor Dimitrov on Friday, after the draw was out and the first-round matchups were known.
— Patrick Mouratoglou (@pmouratoglou) August 23, 2019
It’s not the first time she has practiced with Dimitrov, especially before a Grand Slam. But there’s a special piquant to this one, as fans of both well know and we need not reiterate here.
Maybe the last time
The anticipation for their meeting in Paris ended in disappointment. All you can hope is that this one offers Slam-final like atmosphere and intensity (you know it will from the players) and that the tennis is both competitive and high quality.
There aren’t many “marquee”-type names that well justify a slot in an Ashe Stadium night session, from the women’s side.
There are plenty who deserve it on accomplishment. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, in this venue, in this city, and for the predominantly casual tennis fans who attend these night sessions for the atmosphere and the show.
That two of them will meet in the first round – and thus, one will be eliminated – is a cruel joke by the draw gods.
If it is the last time they find themselves on the same court, let’s hope they at least go out with a bang.