Saturday, June 8, 2013

Beating the Divine Miss M ... Again

"I mean, a lot of what I have or possess has helped me get to the stage where I am today."

Maria Sharapova

The challenge for defending champion Maria Sharapova in today's French Open women's final couldn't have been clearer.

Her opponent, Serena Williams, held a 13–2 head–to–head advantage over Sharapova and had won the previous 30 consecutive matches.

And there were times when I thought she would meet that challenge.

But it was not to be.

There was a lot of interest in this match. It was the first time that the top two women in the world had met in the French Open final in nearly 20 years. Sharapova, as I say, was the defending champion, but Williams hadn't won in Paris in more than a decade — since defeating her sister Venus in straight sets in 2002. Today was the first time she had been in the French Open final since that day.

I suppose a defending champion, whether in an individual sport or a team sport, is favored to repeat. Consequently, I guess, Sharapova would have been expected to be the favorite today. But Williams has been hitting the ball so well that I think she was favored by most observers.

Most of them may have thought that Williams would have an easy time of it, but that was not true. While she did sweep the sets, Sharapova doggedly fought back in each and made Williams work for the title.

The bottom line? Williams defeated Sharapova, 6–4, 6–4.

Prior to today's match, Judy Battista wrote in today's New York Times that Williams, so long in the shadow of her sister (even though Serena has won more Grand Slam titles and more money), is reminiscent of Steffi Graf a quarter of a century ago. Battista wondered if Williams could match Graf's dominance of Natasha Zvereva in the 1988 final.

Graf, too, swept the sets in the final, but she did so at 6–0, 6–0 in a little more than half an hour. If you know nothing but the scores of today's final, you know Williams did not dominate Sharapova like that. The Divine Miss M, as I have already said, put up a great fight — and there were times when I really thought she might come back and win.

But Williams controlled the match. She didn't dominate it, but it was clearly hers practically from the start, and she went on to become, at 31, the oldest women's singles champion at the French Open since the dawn of the open era in the 1960s.

In 1988, a year before she turned 20, Graf swept the Grand Slam. Williams has won all four Slam events at least twice in her career, and she is the defending champion in the remaining two Slams this year — Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — but she didn't win the Australian Open so she will have to wait until at least next year before she will have another chance to win her first true Grand Slam.

She might not do it. There are several talented — and hungry — women on the tour these days, and she can't be expected to continue to play at this level indefinitely.

But right now, she's on top of the world.

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