Monday, June 4, H.L. went to Roland Garros anxious to watch the Rafael Nadal/Maximillian Marterer match – though not much in doubt – and very much excited at the prospect of seeing the 22nd match between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. It was to be played on Court Philippe Chatrier- center court – but of course. Though the match would have occurred in only the fourth round, with the quarters, semis and final still to be contested, this match was one likely to make those succeeding it seem anticlimactic.
The women’s game for the last decade point five has been built on the broad shoulders of these two spectacularly talented and extravagantly dislikable athletes. And though neither is currently near top of her game, it really would not have mattered. The prospect was that the pale red clay would become streaked with blood extracted by powerful strokes, long mutual hatred and all the baggage they bring into each contest. Some foisted upon them by events old and current but much that they purchased.
Serena Williams, considered by some the greatest women’s tennis player ever and by H.L. the best during the last 20 years, has beaten Sharapova the last 19 times they have played, following the only two Sharapova victories. The first and second and last came in the 2004 Wimbledon final and the final of the Women’s Tennis Association season ending championship that same year. Between those two victories, Maria also defeated Venus Williams and accomplished all of that at 17, creating havoc and “Maria Mania” well beyond the tennis world, where the Williams sisters had reigned as the top two players for several years and had already accounted for 10 “grand slam” singles titles between them.
Of those, Serena had won six. Maria’s 2004 victory over Serena was her first. Serena and Maria subsequently and respectively won 17 and four more slams. However, that first match at Wimbledon became the signature, though wildly atypical, match of their on-court rivalry. It’s clear that each time Serena beats Maria, revenge for that 2004 Wimbledon defeat is top of spectators’, if not her, mind. One might say that 19 to 2 isn’t the tally of a great sports rivalry but of a one-sided extended flogging. On court perhaps, but until Maria was given a two-year suspension for doping in March 2016, Sharapova not Williams was the highest paid female tennis player, indeed, highest paid female athlete in any sport for eleven consecutive years. Maria is six-foot two, blond and beautiful in a babe to Russian oligarch way. Until the drug suspension she had been very astutely marketed. Recall her on Vladmir Putin’s arm during the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. For Russia, Sochi is an almost tropical resort. It was slathered with machine made and transported snow to the tune of $51 billion, mostly going to wealthy pals of Putin. After Sochi, both the Russian Olympic team and Maria were banned from subsequent competitions for doping. The Putin/Sharapova image deserves prominent placement in the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) Hall of Shame.
In addition to their on-court and product endorsement rivalries, Serena and Maria sequentially dated an Adonis boy toy – Bulgarian tennis star Grigor Dimitrov, 10 years Serena’s junior and four years younger than Maria. When the currently 6th ranked Dimitrov moved on from Serena to Maria, the former called him a “black heart” and Maria countered that Serena shouldn’t be casting stones as she had separated a hunky French tennis coach, Patrick Muratoglou, from his wife and kids.
On court both players utilize tactics that likely would get lesser female players and male players of any rank knifed in the locker room. Both frequently celebrate an opponent’s awkward unforced error or double fault. Maria has extended the common tennis grunt on racket/ball impact into a howl extending almost until her opponent is about to hit a return. She turns away from opponent and the court for mini-meditation after virtually every point when she is serving.
First pump celebrations of very big and/or beautifully played points are ubiquitous in tennis but Serena often shrieks after winning the most pedestrian point that follows a few she has lost. That she doesn’t take well to the rare defeat is one natural incident of her greatness. But it has also taken an unsportsmanlike form. As when she was being clearly outplayed in a 2009 U.S. Open semifinal match with Kim Clijsters, then unseeded and recently returned to the tour after giving birth. (Contrary to all the hype, Serena is not the first woman to return to the tour after giving birth. Evonne Goolagong and Clijsters both won slams after returning – something Serena is likely to accomplish as well). Serena, then two points from losing to Clijsters in straight sets, was penalized a point for a foot fault setting up match point. She already had been warned by the umpire for a code violation, but approached the lineswoman who had called the fault and said “I swear to God I’ll fucking take the ball and shove it down your fucking throat” – match over. Or while being soundly beaten by Sam Stosur in the 2011 U.S. Open final (6-2, 6-3) was penalized for screaming while her opponent tried to return her shot and then screamed at the umpire “yeah you are, seriously, you have it out for me. . . you are a hater. . . don’t look my way.” Apparently confusing the 2011 female umpire with the 2009 ump who defaulted her in the Clijsters match. And after the match, Serena calmly and sweetly told the press “I don’t even remember what I said.” The Times reported the dichotomized Serena as “extreme opposites. . . In between there is no responsible adult, no attempt at reflection or remorse, even feigned.”
We, or at least tennis fans, know all about both player’s upbringings. Serena’s “straight out of Compton” by way of Saginaw, from which it took Paul Simon four days to hitchhike. She was raised with many siblings, including older sister Venus. Both were tutored by father Richard Williams, hands down the most successful tennis coach in history. Two students, two World No. 1s, a zillion championships and counting. And given Richard’s own background and the severe logistical and resource limitations he faced it is fair to say that he is the Albert Einstein of tennis coaching innovation.
Serena has for many years been a fixture in the tabloids and lifestyle magazines, attending the most recent Royal Wedding and posing nude and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair, etc.
The month she posed for Vanity Fair’s cover, she accused John McEnroe of “invading her privacy” because in an interview after offering his opinion that she was the greatest ever female tennis player, McEnroe was challenged by the interviewer “why isn’t she simply the greatest tennis player of all time?” McEnroe responded that Serena likely would lose to a male tennis player ranked 200. McEnroe had neither initiated the colloquy nor pointed out what he knew, that Serena and Venus were beaten one afternoon by Karsten Braasch, ATP 203, in Melbourne in 1998. This was after they had claimed they each could beat any man ranked outside the top 200. Braasch warmed up by playing a round of golf and drinking two beer/lemonade shandies and then defeated Serena and Venus 6-1 and 6-2 respectively.
Maria’s life story is pretty much the fairy tale of an American girl hero – if she is 6’2”, a self-made billionaire in formation and born near Sochi of Russian parents fleeing Chernobyl. She became an elite tennis player in Florida, has resided there most of her life, speaks flawless and accent-less American English and the U.S. is the focal point of her varied promotional and business interests. The doping ban, reduced from two years to 15 months, hardly slowed down Sharapova Inc. She continued to promote her candy line “Sugarpova,” danced at charity events with Elton John, attended a Vanity Fair Oscar party and was welcomed back with open arms by Head, her racket and apparel sponsor.
The attitudes of her sister WTA players were less welcoming, with many public statements from star players, including Genie Bouchard, condemning her as “a cheater,” protesting her entry into elite tournaments with “wildcards” and some expressing the desire that she be banned for life. Maria’s PR machine countered that these women were “journeymen” eager to win a slam with Maria out of the game.
All of that and the brilliant big babe, first strike, power game about to be played was in mind of spectators as the Nadal/Marterer match proceeded to its predicted conclusion. But just then, as these spectators, including H.L., fiddled with Roland Garros apps on their smartphones a message flashed across their screens that Serena had pulled out of the tournament minutes before the projected start of the big match. She withdrew because of an injury sustained two days earlier, apparently exacerbated by playing in a doubles match with her sister the day before. Given all that, the timing of the withdrawal was bizarre but characteristic of Serena’s MO to keep all eyes focused on her regardless of what is happening on court with other players. The last minute pull out prevented the tournament from putting another marque match on center court as a replacement. Those proceeded on other and outer courts. At her post-withdrawal news conference, she elaborated on how she had “sacrificed so much [to play] from time with my daughter to time with my family.”
I would have rooted for Serena, the equally dislikable, but superior tennis player and the all-American girl who admits to it. But as they say in Paris and said after Serena’s dramatic last-minute withdrawal, covered more heavily than the total coverage of all the great matches played at Roland Garros that day – tant pis! Next up in Post 54, “I Even Will Root For The Jew Argentine.”