Serena dominates late vs. Sharapova

For a set, Serena Williams was searching for the turbo charger that must be hidden under the hood of that white Rolls-Royce she parks outside the stadium. But when she found it, all Maria Sharapova’s great work in this spellbinding final was blown to smithereens as Williams won the Sony Open for the sixth time with a memorable, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory Saturday.

Incredibly, a match that had started with Sharapova looking marginally the stronger player ended up as a rout with Serena winning the last 10 games. It was a performance that had world No. 1 stamped all over it, although Serena was still self-critical afterward.

The first set was everything one could have wished from the two top-ranked players in the world. Hitting their stride from the first ball, Williams and Sharapova went at each other with probing, aggressive rallies that brought gasps from the crowd.

The first three games took 20 minutes, and by the time Sharapova dropped serve after leading 40-0 in the eighth game, the score somehow read 4-4. Twice Sharapova had broken to grab a lead, twice Serena had hauled her back.

What we knew by that stage was that the tall Russian, who has spent almost as much of her life in Florida as Serena, was playing the best tennis against the younger Williams sister we had seen from her for years. Not since Charleston in 2008 had she even taken a set off her, and since then Serena had handed out some brutal beatings, including the 6-0,6-1 humiliation in the Olympic final at Wimbledon last summer.

But this was a different Sharapova, a player who had arrived from a title-winning performance at Indian Wells and had shown, throughout the week, that she was confident enough to go for her shots with all the power her 6-foot-2 frame can muster.

By the time Serena had netted a poor forehand to drop serve yet again, Sharapova was serving for the first set. After 55 minutes of thrilling tennis, she completed the task and Chris Evert was moved to tweet, “Best match I’ve seen in a long time. Maria’s playing smart, handling serve well.”

But Evert added, prophetically, “Will she believe?”

Sharapova may still have had some inner belief when she broke back from 0-2 in the second set and then drew level by throwing up such a great lob that even her opponent thought it worthy of applause.

But it only goaded Serena into hitting the ball harder and harder. The more the set went on, the more tense Sharapova looked. Almost inevitably, a double-fault put her in trouble in the eighth game and when she dumped a terrible forehand into the bottom of the net, Serena found herself serving to draw level.

But the match was never level again. In the third set, Serena entertained her fans with an extraordinary demonstration of power hitting and Sharapova was left helpless.

Serena was not as elated as one might have expected afterward. Taken out of context, one quote sounds ridiculous: “Today wasn’t my day, I don’t think.”

Oh, really? But Serena is always her own hardest taskmaster, and she was upset that she had over 20 unforced errors after the first set.

“I just thought, why am I playing like this?” she said. “How did I end up winning when I wasn’t at the top of my game? I need to go home and get the tape and study it and train and try to get better.”

One of the reasons, of course, was Sharapova — and Serena did acknowledge how well her opponent had played.

“Maria really played the best I have seen her play,” she said. “I think she was moving unbelievable and she was hitting winners from everywhere. So I just told myself, ‘Be strong,’ and stuff like that.”

Despite the one-sided ending, this had been a terrific demonstration of what the best women players have to offer. And despite her disappointment, Sharapova should derive some encouragement from the fact that, for more than an hour, she was Serena’s equal.

That is not something she has been able to say for a long time – not, in fact, since her last victory over Serena all of nine years ago.

“I certainly put myself in a much better position today,” Sharapova said. “I was controlling a lot of the points in the first set and the beginning of the second. Then, towards the end, I just wasn’t there. I was losing a little bit of pace on my ball which hurt me. Against a player like Serena, you can’t really do that.”

Despite her disappointment, Sharapova had not lost her sense of humor. When it was suggested that she lost energy because she hadn’t eaten enough beforehand, she laughed. “I’d love to use that as excuse, but I’m not one for those.”

In fact, no excuses are needed for losing to a champion like Serena.