Finally, a match worthy of the expectations with Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova who put up a fight and produced a contest worth talking about, even if the outcome was a familiar one, a 16th consecutive 6-3 7-6 victory for Williams. “She really pushed me tonight and played so well,” Williams said after her Australian Open success. “She gave us a great final, not only for you guys, but for women’s tennis.” It was Williams’s 19th grand slam title, moving her ahead of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, with only Steffi Graf left to catch. And although she will cherish them all, you could tell as she bounded across the Rod Laver Arena in victory that this one felt particularly special. She had, after all, beaten two opponents: the indefatigable Sharapova, and her own body.
Williams has been feeling poorly all fortnight. On Friday, she had been forced to cut a practice session short because of it. On the morning of the match, she had a high temperature. In the middle of the first set, when play was temporarily halted for rain, she went to the bathroom and promptly vomited.
Only a woman of Williams’s rare and peculiar optimism could take the positives out of a mid-game vomit. And at the same time, you had to feel for Sharapova. Since her last victory over the American in 2004, Williams has beaten her in every imaginable fashion, on grass and clay, indoors and outdoors, in three-set thrillers and hour-long drubbings, in sickness and in health. So perhaps it was simply muscle memory kicking in when she took the microphone and delivered a magnanimous tribute to her greatest foe. “I love every time that I step on the court against her,” she said. “Because she’s the best. And you always want to play against the best. I’m proud to play in the same era as her.”
A top tennis tipster would wonder if Williams bring the worst out of Sharapova, or does Sharapova bring the best out of Williams? Too often it has been the former, but here it was resolutely the latter. It was loud and fiery and gladiatorial, the pair trading screams as readily as they traded ground strokes, and that seemed to suit Williams. It was, in every respect, a consummate display from her, founded as much on defence as attack. She returned about as well as she has ever done, made Sharapova play one more ball, pounced on her opponent’s second serve. And when she found herself in trouble, as she did more than once in the second set, she was able to call on her serve to bail her out of trouble.
When Williams took the first set, breaking three times along the way, another mismatch threatened. But as the stakes rose in the second set, so did the temperature, and so did the volume. At one point it was hard to tell whether they were wailing at themselves or each other, or possibly both. Williams was docked a point at 3-3 for shouting “Come on!” before Sharapova had played her return, thinking she had hit a service winner. But while there may be a deep well of animosity between them, a rivalry fomented over 11 turbulent years, there is respect there too. At 4-5 Sharapova saved her first match point with a crunching inside-out forehand winner. Even Serena had to applaud.
And so to the tiebreak, where Sharapova claimed the first mini-break, but Williams won the next three points to seize control. At 5-4 up Williams, standing almost halfway to the service line, slammed a perfect return winner to bring up two match points. Sharapova saved the first, but a crunching ace won the American title number 19 and the best tennis predictions see her winning a few more Grand Slam titles this year to say the least!