x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Catty exchange between Williams and Sharapova won't excite tennis fans

Women's game needs feuding players to develop a more exciting on-court rivalry, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Russia's Maria Sharapova, left, and USA's Serena Williams change of ends during the 2013 French Open final, won by Williams. The two may have a rivalry on the court, but it is all one-sided in Williams's favour. Off court they have taken to sniping at each other over their personal lives.
Russia's Maria Sharapova, left, and USA's Serena Williams change of ends during the 2013 French Open final, won by Williams. The two may have a rivalry on the court, but it is all one-sided in Williams's favour. Off court they have taken to sniping at each other over their personal lives.

If Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova could recreate only a fraction of the heat on a tennis court that they have done so outside of it, especially in recent days, well, then women's tennis could have had the kind of rivalry it has not had for years.

This is an observation not a complaint because it is not that women's tennis is going through a fallow period of any kind.

Williams lords over it, a figure now as immense as Martina Navratilova. Sharapova is beautiful to watch in a one-dimensional way, like Bambi but graduated from a Swiss finishing school so that any minute she could break out into extreme clumsiness.

If nothing else, she has the same kind of pull that watching a glacier does, waiting transfixed in the hope that one day the entire empire might melt.

Victoria Azarenka is clearly a coming force, already a two-time grand slam winner with an appealing, tall, hunched-shoulder game. You could go right through the current top-10 rankings and find reasons to watch most of them play; Li Na, Petra Kvitova and even the fading Caroline Wozniacki, so compelling in how fragile her career arc appears sometimes.

But right now, if you shake them all up, scatter them across a grand slam draw, which match-up would you really want to see most in a semi or final?

Reflexively you might want Sharapova and Williams but that really is no rivalry, unless you consider a 14-2 record in one's favour a rivalry of any sort.

The last time Sharapova beat Williams was nine years ago; since then Sharapova has won just three of the 29 sets the pair have played. She has lost 13 matches in row to Williams. And it probably is not going to build up into anything more now, despite all the other ingredients being so right.

In actual fact, Sharapova and Azarenka, as senior ESPN writer Howard Bryant recently noted, is the developing duel to watch. It has progressed little-noticed because most people have been busy keeping an eye on Williams and the challenges to her.

It still has some way to go before it really catches a spark and lights up, with its own little tales inside broader narratives, its own tensions and watershed moments, its epics, its swings and shifts. It will need some off-court fuel as well, but it is not there yet.

The absence of one is accentuated by the abundance on the men's tour, basking gleefully in the kind of era that comes around at approximately the rate of once in never. There the top four is engaged in some crazy internecine battle in which individuals rise and fall, but the collective stock of the quartet keeps growing.

When was the last time women's tennis had a real rivalry? Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters worked perfectly (except you always wanted a little more rudeness and a little less polished European manners); a shared geography but regional distinctiveness; the same age group so that it stretched from junior level to the end of their careers; and two styles as different as night and day, a ballerina up against a boxer.

Serena and her sister, Venus, was an obvious candidate but it was stilted too often by too many weird plots and subplots to really take off. Martina Hingis formed a series of natural rivalries at her peak against the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati did, too.

They worked wonderfully less because Hingis was the last bastion for a subtler style of play soon to be overcome by a wave of power, precision and athleticism, and more because she was an out-and-out anachronism in the modern age.

There really was no one like her before or after her.

Before that? You would have to go back to Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, which, after the latter was stabbed, took the idea of a rivalry to a far creepier extreme. Navratilova's time was plump with them of course, against Chris Evert, Graf herself and Billie Jean King.

As well as an observation this is a hope. Rivalries are necessary because of the many things greatness requires one is a counterpoint, ripping off and adding to itself the blood, sweat and muscle of opposing forces. It needs oxygen from the kind of competition that drives players insane and paranoid and insecure, to elevate it. It need not wither without it, as Williams proves, but it helps immeasurably to have a contemporaneous rival.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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