Commentary

Serena still has Maria's number

Updated: March 30, 2013, 7:46 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesSerena Williams set a Sony Open record Saturday with her sixth title at the Key Biscayne tournament.

MIAMI -- No. 1 versus No. 2 & on paper, anyway, it's a tournament director's dream: Serena Williams opposite Maria Sharapova.

That was the Saturday women's final at the Sony Open, but there was a statistical elephant lurking in the room. Sharapova had contrived to lose 11 of 13 previous matches to Williams, including a 0-for-10 streak that went back nearly nine years.

In real life, that's a long, long time. In terms of tennis, it's an eternity.

How do you take the court with that kind of bad karma working? What can your coach, Thomas Hogstedt, possibly tell you that you didn't already know?

Optimism, under these bleak circumstances (20 lost sets in 22 played), is an irrational response.

And yet, for about an hour, Sharapova managed to reach into her psyche and emerge with the very best of her available survival techniques: a powerful case of denial.

And then, after she won the first set and led 3-2 in the second, reality reigned. Order was restored. Sharapova lost the final 10 games and, thus, the match, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.

Serena was so happy afterward that she did a rarely seen 720-degree twirl on the way to the net -- and another after shaking chair umpire Kader Nouni's hand.

"Today wasn't my day," Serena said afterward, sounding like the loser. "Maria played better than I've ever seen her play.

"It feels really good [to win]. At the beginning of the week, I didn't feel I'd be here, the way I was playing. I was just making so many errors.

"I'm not even that excited. I feel like I can do better."

It was the record sixth Sony Open title for 31-year-old Williams and the fifth failed final for stoic Sharapova.

To be fair, it was a home game for Serena. Even though Sharapova lives in Bradenton, some 250 miles away, Serena still shares a house with sister Venus (who was on hand) in nearby Palm Beach Gardens. And although she rode a bicycle to an early-round match when traffic was backed up, Serena made the short drive from her Crandon Park home Saturday in her white Rolls-Royce. She has won more matches here (61, against only seven losses) than anyone.

Sharapova was trying to become only the third woman to win back-to-back at Indian Wells and Miami.

"I feel like I'm mentally tough," Serena said. "Whatever it takes to get there. I knew I could play better. It's just the fact of being able to do it."

Sharapova does many things well, but at 6-foot-2 her legs are so long they take awhile to unspool when she's chasing a shot. Sometimes it looks as if she's falling out of a tree. Williams, meanwhile, is a terrific mover and retriever. In their previous matches, and this one, too, this has been the biggest difference.

Certainly, there were times when Sharapova looked a bit awkward, but she persevered early on and, quite frankly, she was aided and abetted by Williams.

Serena's serve has been described as the greatest in the history of the women's game, but she only got about half of her first serves in during the first set. This is not a good idea against Sharapova, who punishes those soft serves with, one imagines, malice in her heart.

Sharapova, who had three break points in a wildly entertaining eight-deuce game earlier in the set, broke Serena's serve twice. The critical blows came with the score 4-all: a surprising double-fault at deuce and a running forehand that found the net. Sharapova served out the set at love.

Williams, now properly motivated, won the first two games of the second set. Sharapova, though, won the next three in a row. No one knew it at the time, but that was it for her.

Predictably, Sharapova's service woes crept into the match. Serving at 3-4, she double-faulted twice and sent a forehand into the net, which doomed her hopes of a straight-sets victory. Now, Sharapova would be embarking on her very first three-set match of the year.

Hogstedt visited Sharapova before the third set and this, sometimes clapping his hands for emphasis, is what he told her:

"You control the points. Don't give it to her. You are pushing her, shaking her. Every point. Every point. Come on, fire up."

And then she dropped her first service game when Serena challenged a forehand that was called good. It was, microscopically, out, and the momentum was with Williams.

When Sharapova threw in back-to-back double faults to lose her third game of the third set, it was essentially over.

In the on-court trophy presentation, Sharapova actually said she was looking forward to her next meeting with Serena. Serena, not surprisingly, concurred.

"Yeah, she definitely pushed me," Serena said. "I definitely look forward to our next match."

And why wouldn't she?

"I think today I certainly played a lot better," Sharapova said. "I had my chances. It was a step in the right direction, and there's no doubt that we'll be playing many more times.

"There's no doubt I'll be able to beat her."

Ah, the power of positive thinking.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.