May 22, 2008

Serena and Maria: Who's #1? On Grand Slam collision course for Tennis Supremacy

by Steve Murray/, Special to

It's not the Rumble in the Jungle or the Thrilla in Manilla but it is shaping up to be the Duel of the Divas with Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. The first round will be held in Paris, the second in London and the third in New York. And anyone who thinks Maria vs. Serena is just another tennis match really hasn't been paying attention.

For Sharapova, Serena is what clearly stands between her and what she seems to think is her rightful spot as the Queen of Women's Tennis. For Williams, Maria is the one other player who clearly sees herself with one sneaker on the court and the other on the celebrity red carpet. Serena considers herself, on her day, unbeatable. And doesn't mind saying so. She might even be right about that, though she is not "on her day" every day. Unfortunately for Maria, the sight of the grunting blonde on the other side of the net seems to inspire Serena to her athletic best. For four years now she has dismissed the Russian like an irritation at all their meetings, twice destroying her in straight sets at the Australian Open and beating her on clay in Charleston earlier this year. In all, Serena has won five of their seven matches, with the last Sharapova conquest coming in the 2004 WTA Championships.

Now, with Justine Henin out of the picture, the two seem to be sizing each other up for a battle royal that could border on a classic smack down. For Maria the only Slam missing from her collection is the French Open. Serena, of course, is the only active player with all major titles. Henin's retirement also handed the world's top ranking over to Sharapova just in time for Roland Garros, a status Serena would love to blemish. So it probably wasn't such a big surprise after Serena retired from Rome last week that Maria said one day later that she had injured her calf and had to pull out too. It was, after all, not a Grand Slam — as she pointed out to reporters — and if it had been she would have carried on playing.

"Last year (at the French Open), I basically played without a shoulder, and I got to the semifinals," Sharapova said after withdrawing from the Italian Open. "In a Grand Slam, you do whatever it takes, whether that's taking a few extra painkillers or whatever. But a week before a Slam to take your body to that phase, it's difficult." Serena, too, was willing to save her body for the Slam. "It just happened all of a sudden in practice," Williams said about the injury. "I just went for a shot and then my back got a little stuck." Williams did not appear in much pain at the time, carrying a large pocketbook over her left shoulder as she entered a news conference immediately after her withdrawal.

"I didn't feel anything the last match, and I don't expect this to cause any problems with my preparation for the French," she said. "It just happened all of a sudden. I feel like I'm going to be good going into Roland Garros." The two are circling each other like prize fighters and clearly are determined that neither gets the edge. Perhaps the best indication these two are set for an epic series of showdowns: They're the hottest two players on the tour. Sharapova started 2008 at breakneck pace, winning her first 18 matches, a stretch that brought her titles at the Australian Open and Doha. She also won Amelia Island and has lost only two matches all year — a three-setter to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Indian Wells semis and the Charleston three-setter to Serena.

Williams had a 17-match win streak of her own — snapped by Dinara Safina in Berlin less than two weeks ago — that brought her consecutive titles at Bangalore, Miami and Charleston. Like Maria, she has lost only two times in 2008. Serena has been in Paris practicing all week and has impressed scouts with the fact that she is not carrying extra weight and looks in good shape. In the betting she is attracting the smart money and she has been installed now as the clear favorite. But there may be something both of them are forgetting and it could upset their plans completely: The draw will be revealed Friday and will list five players who could pull off a major upset at Roland Garros.

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