French Open 2013 Women's Final: Sharapova vs. Williams Preview and Prediction

James McMahonContributor IJune 7, 2013

French Open 2013 Women's Final: Sharapova vs. Williams Preview and Prediction

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    Serena Williams is seeking her first French Open title in 11 years, and Maria Sharapova is looking to capture her second straight. They’ll have to go through one another Saturday in the French Open final to achieve their individual goals.

    After winning their semifinal matches Thursday, the top two seeds in the tournament will renew a rivalry that has become the most significant in women’s tennis. Williams leads the head-to-head battle with Sharapova 13-2 and has stunningly won the past 12 times the two have met on the court.

    Making the challenge all the tougher for Sharapova, who is seeking her fifth Grand Slam title, is that Williams is completely on her game, having dismantled Sara Errani 6-0, 6-1 Thursday—her 30th consecutive victory in an impressive 2013 campaign.

    For her part, Sharapova is seeking to become the first woman to repeat at Roland Garros since 2007. She survived a tough three-set battle with Victoria Azarenka, which she claimed 6-4 in the third.

    The question now is whether the star-studded final can live up to expectations. The answer to that will largely depend on Sharapova’s confidence level against her primary nemesis, and whether even her best effort can be enough to knock Williams off her very impressive game.

Who Has the Historic Edge?

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    This one’s not even close. Serena Williams has run off a dozen straight victories over Sharapova and leads their rivalry 13-2 all time

    In 2013, Williams has bested Sharapova three times, dropping a set only once in those three battles. The last time the two faced off in a Slam final was in 2007 at the Australian Open, and Serena eased her way to a final score of 6-1, 6-2.

    In 2012, Williams dusted Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 in the gold-medal match of the Olympics on the courts of Wimbledon.

    There is, however, a ray of sunshine in that rather dismal grey cloud for Sharapova. The Russian did manage to win her first-ever Grand Slam title in a 2004 Wimbledon final over Williams 6-1, 6-4. 

    From a career accomplishment standpoint, the difference between the two players is just as stark. Williams and Sharapova are two of the three active women players with more than two major championships to their credit.

    That said, Williams owns a dizzying 15 Grand Slam titles, while Sharapova has four—which is nothing to sneeze at, unless, of course, you’re comparing the two players.

How Sharapova Has Looked so Far at Roland Garros

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    Considering Sharapova has now won 13 straight matches at Roland Garros, a string that includes last year’s championship run, it’s difficult to criticize her play on the red clay.

    That said, her performance on Thursday in a three-set victory over Azarenka was inconsistent at best. After dominating the first set 6-1, Sharapova struggled significantly with her serve and dropped the second set 6-2 before rebounding to win the third after a brief rain delay.

    Sharapova’s groundstrokes have remained strong and are comparable to the mighty power of Williams, but her serve continues to be a source of frustration—and that can’t continue Saturday against the top seed.

    On Thursday, Sharapova’s 11 double faults, which included four in one game, could have cost her the match had Azarenka began the day as aggressively as she ended it.

    To be fair, the Russian had 12 aces in the seesaw match, but she consistently went for too much on her second serves against Azarenka. Against Williams, Sharapova should be more conservative with the second serves to avoid giving away points at the clip she did Thursday.

    Her service struggles, however, have really been the only sore spot as Sharapova has soared to the finals for the second straight year and looks to reverse her career horror show against Williams on Saturday.

How Williams Has Looked so Far at Roland Garros

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    It's been more than a decade since Serena Williams has looked as dominant on the red clay as she did in the semifinals on Thursday. Williams blistered Errani, 6-0, 6-1, and the match wasn't even that close.

    Taking only 46 minutes to dismiss last year's French Open runner-up, Williams' powerful game was on full display. The top-seeded American won 26 of the match's first 34 points and didn't lose her lone game of the match until nearly 40 minutes into it.

    Behind her strong groundstrokes, Williams accumulated 40 winners in the brief match compared to only two for Errani. Her serve, which topped 123 mph on Thursday, has never been better, as evidenced by her winning 28 of the 33 points she tossed up.

    Despite her recent struggles in the French Open, which included a first-round exit in the 2012 event, it shouldn't surprise anyone to see Williams heading to the final against Sharapova. Williams has now won an impressive 30 consecutive matches, the longest streak on the WTA Tour since 2000

    Bottom line: If that same form is on display Saturday, it might not matter what Sharapova does. Williams will be almost impossible to beat.

Biggest X-Factors in the Final

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    Does Sharapova believe she can beat Williams? It's the pink elephant in the room, and the biggest X-factor heading into what could be an epic showdown between the tournament's top two seeds.

    Considering Williams has beaten Sharapova in 12 straight matchups and owns a 13-2 overall margin in their rivalry, it's a fair question to ask. It's also one Sharapova isn't hiding from.

    "Obviously whatever I did in the past hasn't worked," Sharapova said (h/t Associated Press) to the press following her semifinal match Thursday. "So I'll have to try to do something different and hopefully it will."

    The majority of the past 12 matches haven't been exactly near-misses for Sharapova, either. In three matches this year, Sharapova has won just a single set from the streaking Williams. In fact, only three times in those 13 losses to Williams, which date all the way back to 2004, has Sharapova managed to take the match to three sets. 

    For Williams, the question is whether her strength on the red clay can continue for one more match, against her stiffest competition of the event. Williams hasn't won the final at Roland Garros since beating her sister Venus in 2002. In the time since then, she's had some surprising early-round exits, including her loss last year in the first round. 

    Despite a second-set hiccup against Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals, Williams has been absolutely dominant this year and sits on the doorstep of a second French Open title.

    Whether Sharapova can find some confidence against her greatest nemesis and Williams can keep hers at such a high level during their match on Saturday are the biggest unknowns heading into the final.

Sharapova Will Win If...

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    It's absolutely critical that Sharapova gets off to a good start and wins the first set against Williams. Her past struggles against Williams and the up-and-down nature of her game will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Sharapova to recover from a slow start.

    To do that, Sharapova has to be better than 60 or 65 percent on her first serves to keep Williams off-balance and, as much as possible, out of attack mode. When a second serve is demanded, Sharapova has to be smart about when to be aggressive and when to lay off a bit and just get the serve in.

    The four-time Grand Slam champion simply cannot have 11 double faults like she did against Azarenka. She'll need at least 10 aces, or better yet the dozen she rang up on Thursday to keep Williams at bay.

    When Williams has the serve, Sharapova has to rely on her strong groundstrokes to keep the pressure on and force a lower serving percentage. Williams has been pounding her serves at Roland Garros, topping the 120-mph mark on Thursday.

    If Sharapova is allowing quick points and failing to put pressure on Williams, it will revert that pressure back on her own fragile serve and fuel Williams' return game.

    Ultimately, despite the fact she is the defending champion and arguably the second-best player in the world, Sharapova has come up small against Williams—and she needs a strong start to keep her confidence up and the world's hottest player off her game.

Williams Will Win If....

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    Williams will win her second French Open title if she plays even close to how she did on Thursday against Errani. In fact, if she matches her semifinal form on Saturday, it really won't matter what Sharapova does. Williams was simply that good.

    More to the point, Williams needs to continue to display the type of French Open style that has included great footwork, incredible power and her typical will to win that is at an all-time high per her Roland Garros standards.

    As she did in ringing up 40 winners in a relatively short match against Errani, Williams needs to be the aggressor on Saturday, looking to take away whatever confidence Sharapova can muster. She'll do that by putting pressure on Sharapova's serve with her strong return game.

    If Sharapova feels compelled to go for too much with her serve, especially her second serve, she will make errors and give away free points that will erode her confidence quickly.

    In their last match against one another at the Madrid Open a little less than a month ago, Williams took advantage of Sharapova's serving woes to cruise to a 6-1, 6-4 victory in the finals. Williams was aggressive with her returns, pressuring Sharapova into going for too much, especially early when the Russian double-faulted five times in her first three service games.

    If Williams has the form to be the aggressor on Saturday, she will have more than enough to make it 13 straight wins against the very talented Sharapova.


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    If Sharapova were playing any other player, she would be the clear-cut favorite to win her second consecutive French Open and fifth career Grand Slam title. Problem is, she's going up against Williams, the one player she simply can't beat right now. 

    Twice in 2004 Sharapova bested Serena, including in the Wimbledon final. Since then, its been an absolute mismatch when the two meet up—and considering the way Williams is playing and Sharapova is struggling with her serve, it's hard to see a change to that domination coming on Saturday.

    Last month, Williams provided a preview of what to expect in the finals when she beat Sharapova in straight sets to win the Madrid Open on clay. The storyline of that match was Williams' ability to take advantage of Sharapova's service issues, and given what we saw in the semifinals from the Russian's serve, it's likely that will repeat itself at Roland Garros. 

    Sharapova will play better than she has against Williams in recent history and might even manage to win a set. But when it's all said and done, Williams is just too good right now, especially when she sees Sharapova on the other side of the net.

    For the first time since 2002, the French Open will belong to the best women's tennis player in the world.