Two of the highest-profile players in tennis took centre stage in the Sinan Erdem arena on Sunday night to contest the final of the WTA Championships. Although the outcome of the match would not change either player’s ranking, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova were competing for one of the biggest titles of the year, and aimed to finish standout seasons on a high.
In spite of having the higher ranking, Sharapova entered the showpiece match as the underdog. She hadn’t beaten the American since 2004, and has suffered several beatdowns over the years, the most recent being in the final of the London Olympics, in which she won only a single game.
Nevertheless, Sharapova must have felt more confident following her superb victory over Victoria Azarenka in Saturday’s semi-final, and she managed to stay with Williams for much of the first set, using her sharp-angled groundstrokes to good effect and holding firm in her service games.
However, the Russian struggled to make any impact on Williams’ serve, and was often wrong-footed by the American’s powerful deliveries. Serena projected a calm but determined demeanour, only occasionally upbraiding herself for dubious shot selections. Having broken to lead 5-4, the Wimbledon and US Open champion then raced to 40-0 and closed out the first set with her sixth ace.
It was clear that Sharapova was playing much better than she had done for a long time against her illustrious rival. The slower Rebound Ace surface allowed her greater time to set up for shots, and she succeeded in outmanoeuvring Williams in many rallies. But there was little doubt that Serena was the one dictating play, and she broke Sharapova at the beginning of the second set with a confident overhead winner.
More high quality tennis followed, but a familiar pattern also emerged, whereby Sharapova laboured through service games while Serena held her own serve comfortably. The Russian needed to break back to have any chance of winning the match, but she was facing what many consider to be the greatest serve in the history of women’s tennis. She had glimmers of hope at 1-2 and again at 3-4, when she pushed Williams to 30-all, but no sooner had these chances appeared than they were quashed by some more dominant serving.
Serving to stay in the match at 3-5, Sharapova could only watch in wonder as two searing returns from Williams helped her to 15-30. The Olympic Gold Medallist then followed these with her 39th and 40th winners to take the match 6-4, 6-3 in just under one and a half hours.
It was an entertaining and well-fought end to a tournament that has delighted the local fans with exquisite tennis throughout the week. With the victory, her seventh title of the years, an elated Serena capped one of the most successful seasons of her career, a remarkable feat given that illness and injury had almost forced her from the game entirely. Although Sharapova can take some solace from her improved performance, she, like the rest of the field, will be aware that there is simply no stopping Serena when she is motivated, healthy and focused. At 31, and in the best shape of her life, few would bet against Serena continuing to dominate in 2013 and beyond.