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Serena - Sharapova set up blockbuster finale in Miami

There is a good chance that Florida energy magnate William Koch is wishing he kept his hunt for vintage wines nearer to Florida. The billionaire collector is in the midst of an ugly legal battle with Eric Greenberg over a selection of bottles, supposedly of French origin, which turned out to be fake as well as expensive.

Closer home, Crandon Park is host to a fine exhibition of vintage pros whose credibility is beyond reproach. Much like a treasured bottle of Romane Conti, Serena Williams has been getting better with age and experience. Unlike the elder stateswoman of tennis, Maria Sharapova is not short on vintage even though she is only 25. The Russian completed a decade on the tour last year and is on the ascent again after exorcising herself from the torment of injuries. The two best women in the game have set up a mouth watering finale that is befitting the status of the WTA Premier Mandatory event in Key Biscayne. Considering the lopsided head-to-head record between the two, fans will be hoping that Maria can bring her A-game to the court on Saturday to ensure an even contest to decide the championship.

Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning a point against Sara Errani of Itay during Day 10 of the Sony Open at the Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 27, 2013 in Key Biscayne, Florida.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a point against Sara Errani during Day 10 of the Sony Open at the Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 27, 2013 in Key Biscayne, Florida. (Getty Images)

The omens are dark for Sharapova, who has failed to win the Sony Open despite making the finals on four other occasions. She lost to four different players - Kim Clijsters (2005), Svetlana Kuznetsova (2006), Victoria Azarenka (2011) and to Agnieszka Radwanska last year. In Serena Williams, she might have come up against the closest thing to an immovable mountain considering the younger Williams’ affinity to the Sony Open, which she considers her home event. Serena lives in Palm Beach, not too far from Key Biscayne and will have friends, family and fans cheering lustily from almost every one of the 13,300 seats inside the Stadium Court.

Besides, Sharapova has a 2-11 record against Serena – victories in the finals of Wimbledon and Los Angeles came way back in 2004, but both those victories resulted in titles for the Russian diva. Sharapova will be sleeping over imagining ways in which she might try and recreate some of that magic of the past, considering that she has lost ten times against Serena since then. In fact Sharapova has failed to take a set off the American since Charleston in 2008 leaving fans wondering if she can ever turn the tide against the dominant Serena.

Sharapova is hopeful that she can finally take a title from her trip to Miami, “It’s one of the biggest tournaments for us, and it’s one that I am most consistent at being in four finals but not winning it yet,” said the Russian. “I would definitely love to go a step further here.”

Considering that there shall be no surprises between the two familiar rivals, Sharapova will have to rely on her mental fortitude and renewed focus to step on the court on Saturday with a positive mindset. If she can keep her serve under check and maintain a certain degree of consistency, it will give her an opportunity to work around the rest of her game to hurry Serena around the court by hitting off the ground with pace and depth. In many ways, the serve shall be pivotal for Maria in the final considering that the reminder of her game flows from it. We have seen far too often in the past, especially after her troubles with the shoulder, that Sharapova’s game can ebb and flow based on the effectiveness of her serve. Clearly, the Russian cannot afford another match like the one against Sara Errani, where Sharapova survived despite 57 unforced errors including 13 double faults.

Patience will be another aspect that can afford Sharapova a better outing against the world No. 1. Serena has been very clever in their encounters to ruffle Sharapova into abandoning caution filling the Russian with a sense of urgency that has cost her dearly. The Russian needs to avoid trying to find a winner too early, as she is prone to errors when she feels rushed or insecure. Another aspect that could help Sharapova make an impression on the match, is to try and attack the Serena second serve with her forehand make inroads in to her formidable opponent’s strong territory.

With model like looks and a career grand slam, you’d be hard pressed to imagine that Sharapova misses much in her life. But then she is an intense competitor on and off the court, there is no doubting her eagerness to win her maiden Sony Open and strike  a spring double after her recent success at Indian Wells. If she does achieve the improbable, Sharapova could become only the third woman after Steffi Graf (1994 & ’96) and Kim Clijsters (2005) to achieve the double. The one thing going in her favour is that she has now gone eleven matches without losing a set, since the beginning of the American swing.

“They have been pretty quick matches,” recollected Sharapova of her matches against Serena. “She’s a tremendous athlete, has so much power, and a confident player as well. So if you have a few games where you’re not stepping in and not playing the way you should be, she takes really good advantage of it.” The Russian then tried to connect with her audience, revealing her bond with the city, “it would mean so much to me. I absolutely love this city. It’s the first city I landed in when I came to the United States as a little girl.” 

The plan is obviously simpler for Serena – she has Sharapova’s number and if she is anywhere near the quality she brought on court against Radwanska, it is is hard to imagine any woman get past the best in the business. Serena steamrolled her way past the Pole with an incredible 40 winners and 12 aces. Serena has beaten Sharapova most recently, at the Dubai Open semifinals. Barring her hiccup against Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round, where Serena was down a set and 1-4, it has been a straight forward passage for the five time champion. Serena improved to 60-7 at Miami to better the mark set by Graf, who has a 59-7 record at the Sony Open.

 Serena Williams plays a backhand against Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland during their semi final match at the Sony Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 28, 2013 in Key Biscayne, Florida.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Serena Williams plays a backhand against Agnieszka Radwanska during their semifinal at the Sony Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 28, 2013 in Key Biscayne, Florida. (Getty Images)

The great aggressor that Serena is, she will look to step in on every opportunity to create the angle and depth necessary to attack her opponent’s backhand before killing the point with her formidable forehand. With the inside out backhand also working like a charm this week, her bag of arsenal is overflowing with lethal weapons. As always, her serve is at a level that might even be good enough to survive on the men’s tour. Serena will hope that she hadn’t peaked too early, as it will take an equal effort from her to allow Sharapova to walk away with the title.

Only Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert have won six times or more at a single event. Considering the keen sense of history that drives Williams, the lure of a lasting legacy might be enough to drive the world No. 1 on Saturday. When reminded about her dominance over Sharapova, the American chose to respond like a diplomat. “Every match is a new match,” said Serena. “I love playing her. I love seeing her on the opposite side. She just always brings out a good game. I like the challenge of playing someone who has made history and who is doing so well. Maybe that’s it – I really just want to play well against a great player.” She then went on to compliment her rival, “she’s playing awesome,” Serena said. “I definitely expect a tough match. She’s a great player. What else can you expect? She hasn’t lost in a long time, so I have to be ready. One thing about her is she constantly improves. I actually learn a lot from her from that. Hopefully I can do the same as her.”

Expect a cracker – Maria is a tough woman and despite the history of losses she has the momentum needed to finally clip one off her storied rival. I believe we shall have a three set final, with Serena having an obvious edge in the decider. However, I would only be too delighted to be proven wrong by the Russian.

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