Maria Sharapova-Serena Williams to Graf vs Seles: Why women's tennis needs great rivalries

“Martina Navratilova,” Arthur Ashe once said, “is like the old Green Bay Packers. You know exactly what she is going to do but there isn’t a thing you can do about it.” (Green Bay Packers is an American pro football team which has won 13 league championships, including four Super Bowls).

The same sort of vulnerability perhaps pervades Maria Sharapova’s game and psyche when she plays her nemesis, Serena Williams. Of the 21 times they have played each other, the 30-year-old Russian has lost a mind-boggling 19 times.

The lop-sided record, perhaps, reveals a ‘mental block’ on the part of Sharapova, which she has written about in a recently released book — Unstoppable: My Life So Far.

Sharapova, mind you, is no ordinary player. She is a former world No. 1 and has won five grand slam singles titles; the French Open twice and the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, once each.

She was named one of the ’30 Legends of Women’s Tennis’ by Time magazine and as one of the ‘100 Greatest of All Time’ by Tennis Channel. With her striking good looks, Sharapova has done a large number of modelling assignments and endorsements, and was the highest paid female athlete in the world between 2001 and 2012.

The world of tennis has seen some intense rivalries over the last hundred odd years, but none as bitter as the one between Sharapova and Serena. The Russian, who moved to the United States when she was seven, states in her book that she was never enamoured or overawed by the Williams sisters. She says she even refused to stand, like the others, when Serena entered the 2002 Wimbledon Champions Ball.

Maria Sharapova has written about her rivalry with Serena Williams in her new book, Unstoppable. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Maria Sharapova has written about her rivalry with Serena Williams in her new book, Unstoppable. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Serena Williams, with 23 Grand Slam singles titles under her belt, is arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time. She is right now on a short sabbatical after giving birth to a baby from her fiancé, Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, and plans to return to competitive tennis with the Australian Open of 2018.

“Sharapova beat Williams twice in 2004, including her breakthrough win as a 17-year-old in the Wimbledon finals, but Williams has treated Sharapova as her personal punching bag ever since,” writes Kurt Badenhausen in Forbes.

The Sharapova-Serena Williams match-up since 2004 has been pretty one-sided. The Russian reveals why in her book: It wasn’t just that Sharapova won (the Wimbledon women’s singles title of 2004). It was that the teenager heard Williams become emotional in the locker room afterward.

“Guttural sobs, the sort that makes you heave for air, the sort that scare you,” writes Sharapova. “It went on and on. I got out as quickly as I could, but she knew I was there.” That is the only reason why Serena has hated her and has owned her in the past 10 years or so, believes Sharapova.

Both of them are in the habit of taking pot-shots at each other at press conferences and in interviews. The mutual dislike is there for everybody to see.

The Williams sisters have grown up facing discrimination and racist barbs from competitors and spectators alike. Sharapova, on the other hand, is tall, fair-skinned and ‘good looking’; she has consistently earned more money than Serena, through modelling and endorsements, despite winning only one-quarter of her Grand Slam titles. Could this also be one of the factors motivating Serena to go on court, against the Russian, with all guns blazing?

We may never know.

Tennis aficionados, however, believe that Serena’s pursuit of Grand Slam records has provided a hell of a lot of drama for women’s tennis in recent years. It’s not the rivalries — either with Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki or Garbine Muguruza. It is her pursuit of the history books!

The French Open, Wimbledon and US Open women’s events have thrown up surprise winners this year in Serena’s absence. Jelena Ostapenko, ranked 47th, won at Roland Garros, Muguruza, after a year-long slump, took the Wimbledon crown and then Sloane Stephens —  ranked a lowly 83rd — won the US Open title.

Brad Gilbert, a former tennis great and TV analyst says, “Serena Williams has wiped out the field.” With her recent break from tennis, interest in the women’s game has therefore waned.

Tennis great, John Newcombe once said that at Wimbledon, “Ladies are simply the candles on the cake.” Times have changed. Women’s tennis does matter and Wimbledon now gives out equal prize-money to men and women!

In the early 1990s, Dutch tennis star, Richard Krajicek put his foot in his mouth when he said that 80 percent of women’s tennis players were ‘fat, lazy pigs’. When challenged, he said, “I am sorry that was exaggerated. I meant 75 percent of all women players are fat, lazy pigs!” To this, Navratilova retorted, laughing, “I’d like to punch his lights out!”

Humour apart, women’s tennis has, over the years, ridden on the back of some great rivalries: Margaret Court versus Billie Jean King, Chris Evert versus Navratilova and Steffi Graf versus Monica Seles. Then there were those who battled against the Williams sisters in the ‘90s, like Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters etc. But injuries and early retirements have robbed women’s tennis of some potentially great match-ups.

Evert, who played Martina in 14 Grand Slam finals and in more than 80 matches, says, “There is no rivalry at the moment. Martina and I were like night and day; it transcended tennis.” The legendary player opines that great rivalries, in individual sport, bring in more people, more fans and more interest.

Another star player, Pam Shriver — who played both Evert and Navratilova in dozens of matches — believes that if women’s tennis is what it is today, it is because of the 20 straight years of intense, serious rivalries.

In the men’s game there have been a large number of rivalries that have helped the game grow and prosper. Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg dominated tennis till the end of the 1980s. Then came the Borg-McEnroe and the McEnroe-Connors match-ups, followed by the Stefan Edberg-Boris Becker and Mats Wilander-Ivan Lendl encounters. At the end of the 20th century, there were the epic battles that Pete ‘the pistol’ Sampras fought with Courier, Becker, Agassi, Rafter and others.

Roger Federer took over from where Sampras left to dominate the first decade of the new millennium along with Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray then came along and made a place for themselves in the sun.

Tennis rivalries are one on one; tactical, psychological and very personal. This isn’t necessarily true of team games like cricket and football. A Virat Kohli versus Steve Smith or a Messi versus Ronaldo match-up isn’t as intensive or high-stakes as a Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal battle. Great tennis players, therefore, need great rivals to raise their game.

Connors and McEnroe were bitter rivals. But they had great mutual respect. In one tense Borg-McEnroe match, the latter was throwing tantrums after every point, when the Swede called him to the net, hugged him and said, “Relax, John! We are playing a great match. Let’s enjoy it.” That was respect for each other’s game too.

Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle, Wimbledon finalists in 1964 and 1965, stayed together, cooked breakfast for each other and then went and fought out the finals, tooth and nail. Emerson won both finals but the two remained great friends. Rosewell and Laver were pros and rivals for nearly two decades. But they did not allow the money, or the fame, to corrode their friendship.

Evert and Navratilova were as similar as chalk and cheese. Evert was the quintessential American girl, dating famous personalities off court and demure on it. Navratilova was a Czech who had moved to the US, was a lesbian and was extremely emotional on court. Despite being rivals, they became great friends and teamed up to win the ’75 French Open doubles and the ’76 Wimbledon doubles titles.

In her book, Sharapova writes, “Serena and I should be friends; we love the same thing, we have the same passion.” She says that only a few people in the world know what Serena and she know — what it feels like in the dead centre of this storm, the fear and the anger that drive you. How it is to win and how it is to lose. “But we are not friends — not at all,” she rues.

Women’s tennis is now badly in need of a rivalry. If there is anybody who can trouble, if not beat, an aging Serena in the coming months, it is Sharapova. Therefore for the sake of tennis fans the world over, it is hoped that Sharapova fights back and plays her supposed antagonist on an equal level; especially now that she has got the thought of Serena’s hatred off her chest.

The Australian Open of 2018 will, perhaps, give Sharapova the opportunity to find her place in tennis’ ‘Hall of Fame’; and also, perhaps, the occasion to extend a hand of friendship to Serena. It is a mental thing!

What’s more, tennis fans of the future would love to know that Serena and Sharapova were bitter rivals on court but were good friends off it. That’s what sport is all about, isn’t it?

The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. He is also a former cricket and football coach & administrator, besides being a mental toughness trainer.

Updated Date: Sep 16, 2017 11:52 AM

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