Comparisons are not perfect, but as the saying goes, “Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” This is an apt way of entering into a discussion of the first Really Big Event (capital letters warranted) of the 2018 French Open: Maria Sharapova versus Serena Jameka Williams on Monday in Paris.
Sharapova popped Karolina Pliskova on Saturday at Roland Garros, and hours later, Serena jolted Julia Goerges with a clinical, crisp performance. It is true that nothing Serena does should ever surprise tennis observers too much. That said, the idea of Serena winning three matches without a lot of advance preparation or live action in the month of May was not easy to buy into.
The changes, disruptions and uncertainties of Serena’s life — as a tennis player and a mother — have been so profound this year that it made sense to take a wait-and-see approach to her Parisian campaign. The fact that Serena struggled on hardcourts in March — in Indian Wells and Miami — was not a surprise at all. Those results seemed like organic and natural responses to many months spent away from the WTA Tour. Something would have been wrong if Serena had mowed down everyone in her path a few months ago. Similarly, expecting a dominant French Open from Serena — a default setting for tennis pundits three years ago — could no longer be seen as instinctively rational. Her world just isn’t the same.
Neither is Maria Sharapova’s… and that forms the essential part of the backdrop to Monday’s showdown.
Since the last time these two players met in the 2016 Australian Open quarterfinals, so much about their lives — on and off the court — has changed. Body, mind and spirit; joy, suffering and introspection; birth, suspension and injury — so many transformations have greeted at least one of these two women in various ways. This raises the question which is central to Monday’s match and the path it travels: How much will 2.5 years change Serena-Pova, if it changes the matchup at all?
This is where one blockbuster sets up a comparison with another. The comparison isn’t perfect, but it certainly owns some strong common threads.
At the 2017 Australian Open, no one knew what to expect from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. These two players both fit the “never count them out” identity which is rightly applied to Serena, but as much as any success should never be seen as “too surprising,” it still was hard to express certainty that Roger and Rafa would naturally make their way through the draw. They were both seeded outside the top eight. Federer was coming off an injury, while Nadal had just gone through his two toughest seasons in roughly a decade on tour. In a period of three years, they played only once — in Basel, indoors, in Federer’s back yard, not the context in which one could gauge the larger evolutionary status of their head-to-head matchup. When they locked horns in the 2017 Australian Open final, the natural assumption was that Nadal would find a way to win — he had not lost a best-of-five-set match to Federer since the 2007 Wimbledon final. Yet, that assumption was based in large part on the belief that after three years without meeting a major tournament, the dynamics of the head-to-head would remain the same. Chiefly, Nadal would own the biggest moments.
That scenario came very close to repeating itself, but in a span of roughly 20 minutes midway through the fifth set of that match, Federer cleared his head and pushed Nadal out of it. He played the ball and blocked out everything else. He played with an internal freedom which had been the central obstacle to his success against Rafa.
The three years removed from playing Nadal at major tournaments liberated Federer and changed the nature of the duel.
This is what Maria Sharapova is counting on and hoping for in her meeting with Serena on Monday. Two and a half years after her previous meeting against Serena, Sharapova is hoping to find a mental reset button against the opponent she has fundamentally failed to solve (and at a level far more severe than anything Federer experienced against Nadal — Roger has 15 wins against Rafa, Maria only two against Serena).
You don’t have to admire Sharapova — or view her comeback from a suspension as impressive — to appreciate the simple reality that she has restored a considerable degree of her clay-court game. Destroying Pliskova on Saturday in 59 minutes, even when absorbing the fact that Pliskova played poorly, rates as the kind of statement Sharapova made in her heyday. Sharapova treated Pliskova’s second serve with disdain. She owned the court with a familiar swagger. Unlike her first two rounds, she didn’t make a match unnecessarily complicated.
Does crushing Pliskova mean Sharapova is a fully restored player? One can debate that point. There were times over the past month in Madrid and Rome when it seemed reasonable to think that the Russian was about to reclaim the height of her powers, only for her to lose the next match she played. Yet, at the very least, Sharapova has firmly reinserted herself into the Roland Garros discussion. When she lost to Caroline Garcia in Stuttgart, it was an open question if Maria would enter that conversation at all.
Is she “back?” I don’t know… but I do know that if she beats Serena on Monday, she damn sure will be. Sharapova has, at least, given herself a chance to make a very loud and very satisfying personal statement. Merely having this proving ground against Serena is all she can ask for.
She hopes that with a new mind and a new perspective, she can make the kind of magic Federer created against Nadal in January of 2017.
One other aspect of this comparison with the 2017 Australian Open men’s final is particularly relevant: In Federer’s journey through the first week of that tournament, he rummaged through his toolbox and searched for his game in the first two rounds, but then clicked in round three against Tomas Berdych. At this Roland Garros tournament, both Serena and Sharapova noticeably improved in round three as well, delivering authoritative smackdowns to give credence to the idea that they can make a run.
For all the ways in which a Federer-Nadal Australia comparison is incomplete or imperfect when set against Monday’s Serena-Pova reunion in Paris, you have to admit there are more than a few striking connections between the matches.
As was the case roughly 16 months ago in Melbourne, it is up to one player to change the course of history.
Your move, Maria.