*Flushing, NY – The 2019 US Open will kick off tonight, Monday, Aug. 26, with a bang right out of the gates. As top seeds of the tournament begin their pursuit of taking home the big trophy by sharpening their teeth on low-ranked journeymen, Serena Williams was granted no such grace.
Instead, the 6-time champion finds herself facing her long-time rival … well, let me call it like it is, her longtime “nemesis,” Maria Sharapova, in the first round; they’ve never played each other in New York before.
It’s a salacious matchup and an opening night dream for tournament organizers – even given the foregone result … or is the result really foregone?
Once upon a time, across the pond on grass worn to patches by a fortnight of intense competition on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, two young women – one black and the dominant favorite, the other white and a precocious, hungry teen – met up in a final, the results of which would still reverberate some 15 years later. Long story short, Serena Williams was notorious for mowing down her competition up to that point with her fearless ball-bashing style of play, but the Russian, Sharapova, came along and decisively stole her lunch. She matched Serena’s power and then some, leaving the trailblazing Compton-born and bred American stunned, defeated … and with a seemingly everlasting fire in her eyes.
*singing* “Why she wanna go and do that like that …”
Serena’s father, Richard Williams, had already pegged his youngest daughter as a natural born competitor endowed with ferocity that he predicted would land her … well, right where she stands today, as the most decorated tennis player in the Open era, man or woman. But many believe the true catalyst to all that she’s achieved to date was that “loss that shook the tennis world.” And it’s an argument with plenty of merit.
Since that was during a time when professional tennis hadn’t quite embraced the concept of diversity (Wimbledon championships 2004) and the world at large was having its challenges as well, the headlines were quite divisive. Maybe that was intentional or maybe not, but the ugly narratives certainly contributed to the magnitude of the rift as we know it today. It became an issue that transcended a mere tennis match to a race, socioeconomic and beauty issue.
Back then, black wasn’t beautiful, being underclass wasn’t accepted, and white, blonde and wiry was the preferred tennis prototype. Serena didn’t fit the acceptable mold and thusly had to endure ugly comparisons that shoveled mounds and mounds of coal into the belly of her furnace, producing that previously mentioned fire in her eyes. And that fire has burned Maria Sharapova beyond recognition for years and years, to the tune of a 2-19 record against her ruthless “rival.” Consequently, some balk at it being labeled a rivalry … but looking at the dynamics between the two, a rivalry it definitely is.
Both Serena and Maria have advanced in age and have had a series of life changes since that initial meeting. Sharapova has had lingering shoulder injuries and a doping suspension. Serena a pulmonary embolism, a series of high-profile on-court meltdowns and a baby. But they’re still out there competing as accomplished champions, but with compromised (lower than their proven skill set) rankings. And those compromised rankings make them susceptible to meeting up with other top-skilled players very early in the draw of tournaments. Such is the case at this year’s US Open, where they’ll meet each other in round one.
On Monday night inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, along with all the opening night fanfare, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will battle it out for a mere second round berth. But who are we kidding, the advancement to the second round will take a backseat to what’s really on the line. This thing will really be about, quite frankly, “pride and prejudice.” That fact is hard to avoid.
Not only have Serena and Sharapova had their tennis related dust-ups plastered all over the media over the years, but they’ve also had their off-court path-crossing fodder to stoke the flames of their fiery, very personal rivalry. From unbalanced endorsement opportunities and money – in favor of Sharapova – to shared love interests and catty press conference put downs about their personal lives, their is zero, zilch, nada love lost between the two. Maria softened a bit recently and fantasized via her recent book about an eventual friendship between the two as they exit competitive tennis and reflect on their commonalities, but Serena was having none of it and dismissed the notion with a snarky, “I didn’t realize I was on her mind,” rebuttal. Oh, the drama of it all!
All that history and animosity sets the stage for quite the battle to ensue on the year’s final Grand Slam’s opening night. Both women are fierce competitors and rise to such occasions, BUT, with age comes change. Yes, Serena has dominated the Russian over the years (mostly decisively, sans a near-miss or two), but there’s been a sea change of late that may make it a bit more interesting. Serena is still chasing history – after several falters. The 23-time Slam champion has emotional baggage that would have Erykah Badu singing “Bag Lady,” in a unique key of Serena-flat! She’s been known for her ridiculous Grand Slam finals wining percentage (.78), but lately she’s been a complete bust in the important moments. The same slump happened when she tried to reach a previous milestone, but age was more so on her side and she eventually overcame it, but that doesn’t quite hold true today … she’s now 37. And Maria, 32, has been no better, crashing out early in the few tournaments she has entered, whether due to injury or simply rust. Given those realities, the playing field is quite level and ripe for either a redeeming upset or a sustained battle that could go down as one of the best matches in the history of the two.
We shall see … and that we will first hand, as we will be in the house, live and in living EURweb color to witness it.
Check the match out on Monday night by either buying a ticket if you’re in New York or check your local listings for its airing and stock up on popcorn.