By Kevin Ware
(March 30, 2013) MIAMI – Serena Williams pulled off a comeback win for the ages on Saturday at the Sony Open. Down a set and a break against Maria Sharapova, Williams won the final 10 games to record a 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory, and pick up her record sixth title in Miami.
It didn’t start that way.
Sharapova came out determined to reverse the trend of losses to Williams and finally win her first Miami title in her fifth attempt. For a set and a half, Maria Sharapova dominated play with solid serving, a phenomenal return game, and groundstrokes that consistently found their mark in the corners and on the baseline.
When Sharapova’s “A” game is working, even a player of Williams’ caliber can struggle. And struggle she did. Serena’s troubles started early in the match during the third game of the first set. The vaunted Williams’ serve, normally a thing of beauty (and free points), left the stadium as she began her first service game on the difficult side of the court facing the sun.
That game went to 8 deuces and lasted almost 20 minutes. After the match, Williams joked, “That’s sometimes a first set for me. But I thought, I need to win this game.” Williams eventually held, but only after surviving three break points. Sun was part of Williams’ problem on Saturday, as were the breezy conditions. Williams continually gestured to herself about reaching to the ball, and not moving her feet.
The conditions had no such effect on Sharapova, who defended Serena’s ground game beautifully, and moved side-to-side with ease. One could almost say that Sharapova’s defense and footwork were better than Williams’. The work she has done over the past few years for more explosive footwork continues to pay obvious dividends in matches like this.
Sharapova’s serve, often her biggest liability since coming back from shoulder surgery, was rock-solid in the first set. Williams’ fearsome return game usually causes Maria to press on serve, leading to double faults. In Saturday’s final, she kept it simple with serves ranging from 95-115 mph, placed well inside the service box.
Sharapova was serving more effectively than Williams, returning more effectively, and in complete control of the match. The first set came to a close when Sharapova broke Williams in the ninth game, and then served it to win 6-4. This was the first set Sharapova had taken off Williams since 2008 in Charleston. The momentum was clearly in the Russian’s favor. The only question was whether or not that momentum would matter if Williams managed to recover her “A” game before it was too late.
The second set began with Williams holding serve at love, followed by a break of Sharapova. The tide looked to be turning until Sharapova remembered her first set strategy and broke Serena twice, the second break at love, to lead 3-2. After 9 years of heartbreak, Sharapova was poised to beat Williams and finally take home her first Miami title.
And then, everything changed. As the saying goes, finally Serena “remembered who she was” and broke Maria at love. She never looked back, winning the next 10 games for the win: a win that at one time looked to be impossible. Impossible for most players not named Williams, that is.
Sharapova was asked about her thoughts during the break after losing the second set, and whether or not she’d regretted not being able to close out the match in two sets. “I think I was just more thinking about those chances that I had in the middle and towards the end of the second set when it’s a different story when it’s 5-3 or when it’s 4-All and you’re up a set.”
Sharapova also gave credit to Williams for seizing the opportunity when she given the chance. “I think that’s why she’s No. 1 in the world. You know, she’s really capable of doing that.” Serena is certainly capable of a comeback like this, as Lindsay Davenport found out in her 2005 Australian Open final against Serena. In similar circumstances, Serena came back from a break down and swept the table on Davenport for the title.
Sharapova’s brave public front is just that: a front. After all, she had her best shot to beat Serena on a hard court since 2005 in Australia. She started the match grabbing it by the throat, and ended it on the receiving end of a 6-0 third-set bagel. Maria is a phenomenal competitor, but you have to believe that this particular loss will stick with her for a long time.
Williams never likes to talk about records (at least, not before breaking them), but she had to admit that “it’s really cool” when she was reminded that Steffi Graf only won five titles in Miami. This is the second record of Steffi’s that Serena broke in Miami after also surpassing her record total of matches won.
With her latest hard court title in hand, Serena heads to Charleston next week to start her clay season. Last year she dominated in Charleston and Madrid, but suffered a first round loss to Virginie Razzano at the French Open. When asked about the upcoming clay season, Serena said, “Hopefully I can just keep winning matches on clay.”