Australian Open: Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to meet in final

The showdown the rest of the world never tires of – be it sport, politics or keeping us in a permanent state of economic anxiety – will play out again here on Saturday night when Serena Williams goes up for the United States against her Americanised Russian deadly enemy, Maria Sharapova, in the final of the Australian Open.

On what they have shown so far – most pertinently in convincing victories in their semi-finals on Thursday – it should be another grinding collision of wills. History dictates it will be Williams accepting the warm applause of the crowd yet again when the dust settles on Rod Laver Arena, as the oldest Australian champion in the Open era, at 33, and still ranked No 1 in the world.

Floyd Mayweather, who is dithering about coming to the concluding weekend of the tournament, knows all about history in his own sport, standing as he does just two wins away from the fabled 49-0 unbeaten record that Rocky Marciano left as his legacy to boxing. Whether or not he makes it to Melbourne in time (he has a hungry entourage of 30 acolytes in tow, and was testing the patience of his Australian hosts to the limit in trans-Pacific negotiations all week), he will be cheering for Williams to move within two titles of an equivalent target in women’s tennis, the 22 majors owned by Steffi Graf.

She said beforehand she doesn’t need to win any more tournaments (although she has no plans to retire). She has already done plenty, she said – which is palpably true. However, when she won her 18th slam at the 2014 US Open to draw clear of her peers, she says she did it because she had finally “learned to relax”.

But she knew exactly what victory delivered: respect. Having not always been appreciated for the phenomenal player she is, and ludicrously living in the financial shadow of Sharapova, she wants and deserves wider acceptance; being the most garlanded woman in the Open era would surely seal that objective.

If she were to go on to pass Margaret Court’s tally of 24 majors, her case for being rated the greatest player in the history of women’s tennis would be as strong as anyone in living memory.

That is a little way off, of course, and to get to 19 majors she has to beat Sharapova, who eased passed her Russian compatriot Ekaterina Makarova 6-3, 6-2 in an hour and 27 minutes on Thursday on the back of a lethal serve and all-round excellence off the ground.

Perhaps just as painful for the loser was Sharapova’s perfunctory hand-slap at the end; they do not appear that close.

Williams has done remarkably well to play through what is clearly a heavy cold, coughing and splutting in nearly all her interviews. “I’m feeling a lot better than I did the past couple of days,” she said later.

Sharapova, who has lost 15 matches in a row against Williams since beating her to win Wimbledon as a teenager, finds herself in a similar situation to that of Tomas Berdych, who had lost 17 matches in a row before beating Rafael Nadal this week.

The sporting clock moves more slowly than we imagine. Consider this: Keys was seeking to be the first American teenager to reach a slam final since Serena Williams in the 2001 US Open, when she lost to her elder sister, Venus, after beating Madison’s coach here, Lindsay Davenport, in the quarter-finals. And who did Keys beat to reach the semi-finals? Venus.

Serena’s serve got her through a very tricky match. “She hits a very, very hard ball,” she said, “but she also hits it very deep. So it’s a little different trying to prepare for that. I wasn’t ready really for that.”

Now the acknowledged best two players in the world meet in the first slam final of the year, which is the way everyone likes it – especially a match between two layers who struggle to hide their disdain for each other.

When asked about how she felt playing someone still recovering from a fever, she smiled and said, “I feel good. Thank you.” Not for Sharapova even a sliver of sentiment when there is a job to do – especially against Williams.

Asked what it was about Williams that made it so tough to beat her, she said, “I think her power and her aggressiveness. That’s always made me a bit too aggressive, maybe going for a little bit more than I had to. She’s great at making players hit that shot that you don’t necessarily have to go for, maybe going for a little too much, going on the line.

“It’s been a really difficult matchup for me, but I am a competitor. I will go out and I will do everything I can to try to change that result around.” She added: “I played solid today. I did everything I had to do. I wasn’t afraid for it to become a physical match. It was important to stand my ground in the first few games, which I did well, even though I was behind.”

This most methodical and icy of competitors will prepare in her usual, low-key way. “I don’t listen to music, I don’t take a bath, none of those. I usually spend some time with my team and we talk about pretty much everything, the match, how we’re feeling, things like that.

“It’s very easy to get discouraged by a big stage and by a big moment. But actually that’s what you work for. That’s what you want to get to. I’ve had many great memories on Rod Laver Arena. I’ve hopefully set myself up for another good one.”

As for Keys, she looks to have the right blend of humility and ambition to make it, not to mention the admiration of her rivals. “I’m really happy to have gotten this far in a tournament. It’s my first one. Just looking forward to having more.”

Williams was impressed: “She can go really, really far. I think she can be the best in the world. The way she played today I definitely think she has potential to be No 1 and win Grand Slams. It’s exciting to see.” 

Credit: Kevin Mitchell/Guardian Sport