Top-ranked Serena Williams is the only player in tennis who is so good, when at her best, that anyone on the wrong side of the net is rendered a clear and nearly hopeless underdog. Even when that other player is the second-ranked women in the world, Maria Sharapova.
It almost isn’t fair.
Serena is bigger and stronger than just about anybody else she faces, but she also covers more ground.
It doesn’t seem right.
LeBron James with a full head of steam, bounding downhill toward a rim-shaking slam dunk — poor Maria was the defender trying to stop the tennis equivalent of that Saturday in Key Biscayne.
Williams won her record sixth championship in this event, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, in what began looking like it might be an epic match or even an upset but ended up just another Serena runaway. She won the match’s last 10 consecutive games.
Sharapova famously half-grunts, half-squeals with every shot; close your eyes and it’s as if you are listening to a woman in labor. On Saturday, you were. She was laboring so hard, but those sounds might as well have morphed into whimpering as Williams went and took the match from her by force.
And here’s the funny part (except, I’d imagine, to Sharapova):
“[Saturday] wasn’t my day,” Williams lamented after the match. “Maria played the best I’ve seen her play. I was thinking, ‘Why am I playing like this!?’ I was just making so many errors …”
There is an innate cockiness to Williams, an ego she is not afraid to show. She knows she is the best. She does not care how it might sound to others when she casually mentions it “wasn’t my day” even as she has just dusted the world’s No. 2 player.
Serena does not demure. On Saturday she was asked her favorite surface to play on, and replied, “Ice, grass, clay, whatever. Just give me a racket and a ball and I’m ready.”
Of a particularly long game in the first set that took about 15 minutes, she noted, “That’s sometimes [the length of] a first set for me.”
Williams appeared 50 minutes late for her postmatch news conference, with nary an explanation or apology. But how the grousing media felt about this bit of imperial rudeness could not have equaled the helplessness Sharapova must have felt as her strong start frittered away to an 0-5 career record in finals in Key Biscayne.
She also has now lost 11 consecutive matches to Williams, her nemesis. Sharapova last beat Serena in 2004, a tennis lifetime ago. In 2013, Williams should be in her early decline at age 31 while Sharapova is in her prime at 25, but the beat goes on. And Serena is still doing the beating. It seemed for a while like Saturday night be different. After winning the first set 6-4, Sharapova led the second 3-2.
“I don’t think I was as energized as I could be,” Williams said.
That changed quick as one of Serena’s 115-mph serves.
An hour or so later, the women’s championship match didn’t look nearly as good on that purple court as it had looked on paper.
Still, No. 1 vs. No. 2 was as great a marquee final as tennis’ “fifth major” could have hoped for, and this tournament needed that.
Although Williams pulled away for a comfortable win, a three-set final between the world’s top two women was a needed jewel atop a two-week event that has been far from the most memorable of all the 27 tournaments played on this idyllic island some 10 minutes southeast of Miami.
The event was rocked on the men’s side because Roger Federer did not enter this year, Rafael Nadal was a last-minute withdrawal and Novak Djokovic was ousted in an earlier round — meaning the three top crowd draws on the men’s side were erased from the equation. (Sunday’s men’s final — Andy Murray against David Ferrer — is fine, but hardly has the heft of a classic duel. It feels like a consolation prize.)
This year’s event also suffered from too many walkovers and retirements aborting too many matches.
The tournament also was overshadowed, through no fault of its own, by the Heat’s 27-game winning streak and the Miami Hurricanes’ run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. South Florida sports fans who only casually follow tennis had particular reasons for their thoughts to be elsewhere the past two weeks.
Key Biscayne simply did not rivet our attention as it has in past years.
The women’s final Saturday at least offered some redemption, to the delight of a sold-out stadium crowd of some 14,000.
It would be No. 1 Serena Williams continuing her dominance, or it would be No. 2 Maria Sharapova finally solving the mystery of how to out-do her nemesis.
The final three games of the deciding set offered a compelling answer.
At 4-0 in the third set, Richard Williams, Serena and Venus Williams’ father, left his sun-baked seat and repaired to the shade, satisfied his daughter had safely locked away the win. (He could have left sooner.)
It was 5-0 when Sharapova lost her serve. In tennis, they say that she was “broken.” The word fit the occasion very well.
Williams made it 6-love on a service winner that Sharapova lunged to barely touch.
The longtime rivals met at the net for a perfunctory handshake. Then, probably without realizing she was doing it, Serena put her hand on Sharapova’s shoulder in a gesture of consolation.
Two days earlier, Serena had looked ahead to Saturday’s final by saying, of Sharapova: “I don’t know, I just feel like — I love playing her.”
What that might be would not qualify as a mystery.