French Open 2018: Can Maria Sharapova end her 18-match losing streak against Serena Williams to add life to lopsided 'rivalry'?

Maria Sharapova was 17 years old when she defeated Serena Williams in the Wimbledon 2004 final for her first Grand Slam trophy. Four months later, she would again defeat Serena in the final of the season-ending WTA Championships. Since then, the American has won all 18 matches that they have played.

It’s been 14 years since Sharapova won against Serena. It’s been 10 years since she took a set. Serena leads the head-to-head record 19-2, and her 18-match winning streak against Sharapova includes three Grand Slam finals and an Olympic gold medal match. Serena has won 39 sets (the last 16 in a row), Sharapova only seven.

File photo of Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams holding their respective trophies after their women's final match at Wimbledon in 2004. Seventeen-year-old Sharapova won the match, 6-1, 6-4. Reuters

File photo of Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams holding their respective trophies after their women's final match at Wimbledon in 2004. Seventeen-year-old Sharapova won the match, 6-1, 6-4. Reuters

Clay, hardcourt, grass — Serena has dominated Sharapova on every surface. Most of their matches have been blowouts (like the 6-1, 6-2 win in the 2007 Australian Open final and the 6-0, 6-1 win in the London 2012 Olympics final) with the 23-time Major champion barely losing a handful of points. The last time they met was in 2016 in the quarter-finals of Australian Open; Serena won that match 6-4, 6-1.

Serena Williams vs Maria Sharapova is not a rivalry.

It’s not a rivalry because of the tennis that they play on court. It’s a “rivalry” because of their global appeal and stardom. It’s a “rivalry” because of the attention this clash draws regardless of the form or event. They are the two most popular female tennis players on the tour, they are the two highest-earning female athletes in the world.

While Serena’s achievements far outrank Sharapova’s, the Russian has been able to match and surpass the Americans in terms of commercials and endorsements. It’s a “rivalry” because of their off-court barbs and taunts — Sharapova has been more outspoken, while Serena has expressed what she truly feels through not-so-cryptic tweets and “likes” on Twitter.

Their cold war was recently fuelled when Sharapova in her autobiography Unstoppable claimed that Serena "hated" her for hearing her cry after the 2004 Wimbledon final.

"I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon," Sharapova wrote. "I think she hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry. She's never forgiven me for it."

Serena slammed Sharapova for her negativity and dismissed the claims she made. “I think the book was 100% hearsay, at least all the stuff I read and the quotes that I read, which was a little bit disappointing,” she said in her post-match press conference at Roland Garros.

"You know, as a fan, I wanted to read the book and I was really excited for it to come out and I was really happy for her," she added. "And then the book was a lot about me. I was surprised about that, to be honest."

So, what can we expect when Serena and Sharapova meet for the 22nd time in the French Open fourth round on Monday?

Sharapova Serena 825

Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will clash for the 22nd time in the fourth round of the French Open. AFP

Both these players were sidelined from the sport for a while — Sharapova served a 15-month suspension for using banned drug Meldonium while Serena had a difficult recovery from an emergency cesarean section and post-partum complications after the birth of her daughter.

Sharapova has been back on tour for over a year, but her return has been far from smooth. Since her return, she has only won title at Tianjin and even suffered a four-match losing streak earlier in the year. But it’s on clay that she rediscovered some form, reaching the quarter-finals at Madrid and the semis in Rome.

The two-time French Open champion struggled in her opening two rounds — Sharapova was taken to three sets by Dutch qualifier Richel Hogenkamp and put up an erratic display in her 7-5, 6-4 win over Donna Vekic.

However, it was in her third round against sixth seed Karolina Pliskova that Sharapova truly impressed. She thumped her Czech opponent 6-2, 6-1 and hit 18 winners to Pliskova’s five in the match.

On the other hand, Serena is playing only her third tournament post her pregnancy and had zero claycourt matches under her belt before Roland Garros. But as the 36-year-old American has shown time and again, she can hit top form in the blink of an eye.

Serena showed signs of rust in her first two rounds against Kristyna Pliskova and Ashleigh Barty but was imposing in her 6-3, 6-4 third round victory over Julia Goerges. In Serena’s case, she can win easily even if she isn’t playing her best — her thunderous serve rescues her at times, her shotmaking and experience suffice often, and as Barty found out, sometimes it’s just her intimidating presence on court that acts as an added advantage.

Even though the fourth round match against a still-vulnerable Serena presents the best opportunity for Sharapova to defeat her nemesis, tennis is ultimately a sport of matchups. When it comes to this “rivalry”, Sharapova just doesn’t have the tools to overcome Serena. Her unreliable serve is easy pickings for Serena and she struggles to match Serena for power and pace.

The one thing that we are assured of — Sharapova will fight and resist till the very last point. “Numbers don’t lie … but you know, despite the record that I have against her, I always look forward to coming out on the court and competing against the best player,” Sharapova said after her third round win.

The 31-year-old’s resilience and never-say-die attitude are her biggest strengths and she will need them in spades on Monday to have a shot at recording the one victory that she most desires.

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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2018 08:36:42 IST

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