How Sharapova made Williams cry at 17
It’s been two years since five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova hasn’t played on tour. She announced her professional retirement in February 2020 and, needless to say, there has been no real replacement since. What made Sharapova so unique? Not long ago, in an interview, she described herself in three ways: “Honest, competitive, and attentive to detail. These qualities have made Maria a super athlete, capable of winning the toughest duels with the toughest competitors, tournament after tournament, time after time. But, by the way, throughout Sharapova’s career there was only one tennis player whose victory over the Russian meant more than just a “win” mark. And we’re talking, of course, about Serena Williams.
The famous tennis coach Gabe Jaramillo, who worked for many years at the Nick Bolletieri Academy, not long ago shared his memories for the Punto de Break edition, where he told how Maria Sharapova since childhood dreamed of beating Serena: “I remember when Maria was 14, she lost to Marion Bartoli 0:6, 0:6. I told her to train her serve so it wouldn’t happen again. But she said, “I’m not training to play with Bartoli, it doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m training to play Serena Williams. She was obsessed with wanting to beat Serena! At one training session at the academy, Maria hit the ball and I said: very good! She responded: no, I can’t beat Serena with that shot. In every move she made, she thought of Serena.”
In her autobiography “Unstoppable. My Life, Sharapova also devoted quite a few pages to her desire to beat Serena Williams: “As I got older and approached the games that really mattered, I heard the same names around me. Only two names were heard among the new generation: Serena and Venus, the Williams sisters. As teenagers – one year apart in age – they were already the best in the world. They were winning tournaments and being crowned all over the world. The sisters were big girls and had incredible punching power. And the more I heard about them, the more adamant I became in my desire not to let them get the better of me, not to submit to them. It was then that I experienced what they call a sense of competition. And not on the tennis court or at a banquet, but in my own head, before I even saw the Williams sisters in person.
Sharapova recounted in the book how she had a very specific desire to “get” Serena. In 2002, Maria became a Wimbledon junior finalist, and the younger of the Williams sisters won her first title at the most famous tournament on grass, beating Venus in the final. Serena appeared at the traditional winners’ and finalists’ ball like a queen: “She walked in with a big smile, head held high and shoulders slung, making the most of the triumph this grand entrance gave her. The shouts of approval did not cease. People began to rise to their feet. They gave a standing ovation. The girl sitting next to me- I can’t remember her name-tapped me on the shoulder. – Get up! Get up! It’s Serena Williams! – she shouted. I wanted to get up, but my body wouldn’t listen to me. It felt like I was stuck to the chair, and now I was looking at Serena through the crowd with only one thought in my head: I’ll get you.
Sharapova got to Serena two years later, in the final of the adult tournament. The day before the final match, the Russian woke up with a sore throat but forgot all about her cold as soon as she took to the court. Up against 17-year-old Sharapova was Serena Williams, who would become the first woman since Steffi Graf to win Wimbledon three times in a row. She was?!
“Serena Williams looks almost arrogant and a little aloof on the court, like she’s watching you from a great height. I recognized that look because I look exactly the same way myself,” recalled Sharapova, who ended up winning the final 6-1, 6-4.
It was unthinkable that she, her entourage and the audience could believe her success as a young Russian tennis ace who had become an overnight global star. Maria’s rival could not believe in Sharapova’s victory either. As the five-time Slams champion writes in her book, after the awards ceremony the newly crowned champion witnessed a real Serena Williams tragedy: “Serena left the court as soon as possible without it being perceived as a scandal. Having a private stall in the locker room means that even if you can’t see your opponent, you can hear them. And what I heard, when I got back to the locker room and started to change, was Serena sobbing. The throaty sobs that mean the one crying doesn’t have enough air, and that scares you. They didn’t stop for a minute. I left the locker room as quickly as possible, but Serena knew I could hear her.”
In Sharapova’s opinion, at that moment she became the most important opponent for Serena forever. Maybe that’s why Maria has only managed to beat the American twice out of 22 bouts in her career. “People often wonder why it’s so hard for me to beat Serena. For me, the right answer stayed exactly in the locker room, where I changed to Serena’s sobs.”