For a brief moment on Monday night under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, it looked as if the long-hyped but overdramatized Serena Williams-Maria Sharapova rivalry might actually live up to expectations.
The two met at the net before the match, joined by Billie Jean King, for a ceremonial photograph. Separated by the net, King and a young fan, they barely glanced in one another’s direction. Williams walked away before everyone’s smiles had a chance to fade. The tension was palpable.
Once the match started, the near-capacity crowd seemed to react to every point — oohing and ahhing just about every time the players’ rackets connected with the ball. Williams, dressed in a skintight black body suit that made her look like a superhero, took the first game. Sharapova took the second.
It was six minutes of competitive tennis. But it wouldn’t last. Williams surged over the next 18 minutes and took the next five games for the set. Sharapova’s trademark grunt got louder and more pronounced, but she had no answers for Williams’ power. She looked dazed at times, and stared at her racket in disbelief.
The second set wasn’t much different. Williams took the match, 6-1, 6-1, in just under an hour of play.
When asked afterwards if she considered Sharapova a rival, Williams hesitated briefly before answering in perhaps the most gracious way she could. “I don’t know what the meaning of ‘rivalry’ is,” she said. “I feel everyone I play is a rival. Whether I’m 20-2 or 0-1, it’s always interesting.”
In reality this is a rivalry in name only. Williams now owns a 20-2 career record over Sharapova, and has won the last 19 meetings. It’s the longest active win streak on the WTA Tour. Sharapova hasn’t beaten Williams since November 2004, when Usher and Alicia Keys ruled the charts with “My Boo” and The Incredibles (the first one) was the top movie in America. Coco Gauff was just an infant.
And yet, this meeting felt far more significant than that lifetime record would indicate.
“They carry themselves like fierce rivals, as if it’s much closer than it really is,” said 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion and current ESPN analyst Pam Shriver. “This matchup interests more than just tennis fans — it transcends the sport and is very much part of pop culture. The average person doesn’t know just how one-sided it is. They just know these are two of the most famous names in tennis, in terms of commercial success and making news off the court.”
Naomi Osaka, the defending champion and world No. 1, summed it up best during her news conference on Saturday before play began. “Of course I’m going to watch it,” she said. “I know you all are going to watch it. I think everyone in New York is going to watch it.”
The rivalry began in 2004, when Sharapova, now 32, beat Williams in the Wimbledon final. The victory catapulted her into the sport’s elite – and, as she speculates in her 2017 book Unstoppable: My Life So Far, into Williams’ bad graces.
“To me, the real answer was there, in this locker room, where I was changing and she was bawling,” she wrote. “I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”
Shriver believes Sharapova’s win at the All England Club is something Williams, 37, has never forgotten. It was the first time she’d lost to anyone other than her sister Venus in a Grand Slam final, and at 6-1, 6-4, it wasn’t close.
“The loss at Wimbledon kind of shook Serena,” said Shriver. “Ever since then, she has been on high alert, since the very first point, whenever she plays her. She always means business when it comes to revenge, but it might be a little bit more against Sharapova because of that. Not to mention, there’s not exactly any love lost between them off the court either.”
Williams has typically avoided talking about Sharapova, but the two did have a war of words via the press in 2013. While Williams never specified who she was referring to, a Rolling Stone interview implied that she was talking about Sharapova and her then-boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov when she said: “She begins every interview with ‘I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’ — it’s so boring. 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.”
Sharapova responded by suggesting Williams was dating 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,” she said in a Wimbledon press conference.
So it may not be an on-court rivalry, but there’s almost certainly a grudge. To be clear, this is not the matchup it once was. Both have struggled with injuries lately and are nearing the end of their careers. However, Williams — five years older than Sharapova — is still reaching Grand Slam finals and contending for titles. She’s played in three of the last five major championship matches, and was in the final at Toronto earlier this month (before retiring with a back injury). Sharapova made her last Grand Slam final appearance at the Australian Open in 2015, where she lost to — wait for it — Williams.
Williams has dominated during their careers, and Monday was no different. She had five aces, and won twice as many points (56 to 28) and five of six break points. Sharapova didn’t win a single point on her second serve.
“I thought she played well, I thought she served really well,” said Sharapova afterwards. “Found her spots really well. Didn’t feel like we got into too many long rallies. I think the 1-2 punch. She won a majority of those points. If I saw the percentage of that, I think that’s where she hurt me a lot.”
Sharapova insists she still loves playing tennis and believes she will be successful again on the court, despite her recent string of disappointing results. When asked how she would feel about losing 19 straight matches to one single opponent, even Williams, who is rarely at a loss for words, seemed briefly stunned.
“Gosh, I never thought about it like that. She keeps coming out and keeps fighting and keeps finding different ways to stay in the match. So yeah…”
Her voice trailed off before she answered a question about new training techniques. Sharapova, meanwhile, had already exited into the New York night, preparing for a future meeting with the foe she can’t quite figure out.