Williams and Sharapova sit atop the WTA rankings at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Funny, after all the hype about the emerging Eugenie Bouchard, the surging Simona Halep and the recharged Petra Kvitova, women's tennis finds itself where it's been for the past five years: focused on Williams and Sharapova.
The two biggest names in women's tennis are vying to end 2014 with the No. 1 ranking. Williams has held the No. 1 spot since February 2013.
Sharapova's recent win in China has put her within striking distance of overtaking Williams. She can do it without beating Williams. However, if Sharapova wants that ranking to be taken seriously, a win over Williams is a must.
Williams has a 15-match, decade-long winning streak against Sharapova.
Sharapova doesn't hide her desire to best Williams. She told Mark Hodgkinson of WTAFinals.com, “It’s no secret that Serena is an opponent I would love to beat.”
She may get another opportunity if the two compete at the WTA Finals in Singapore. The year-end championship tournament begins Oct. 17.
Williams enters the tournament with 8645 points. Sharapova trails her in the rankings with 6680. A victim of her success in 2013, Williams has failed to defend the massive points she rolled up last year. She began 2014 with more than 12,000 points. Last year, she won 11 titles, including two Grand Slams and went 78-4. She also won the WTA Finals.
Defending those points has proved too difficult for Williams, who has been plagued by illness and injury this season. She recently withdrew from the China Open with a knee injury. Her knee was so swollen that Williams said it even hurt while sitting.
The 18-Slam winner told reporters that she plans to get an MRI in Europe and will decide whether it makes sense to play in the WTA finals. "If I feel this way for Singapore, I don't think it's smart for me to play," Williams said. "I'm just going to see how it goes."
Meanwhile, Sharapova has benefited from having zero points to defend in the fall. Sharapova, hampered by a shoulder issue, withdrew from the 2013 U.S. Open. She played just one match following Wimbledon, a loss to Sloane Stephens in Cincinnati.
If Williams withdraws from the finals, she loses 1500 points. Sharapova would need to win just three matches (worth 70 points each) to amass enough points to overtake Williams.
Keeping the No. 1 ranking may be less important to Williams, who has already said she plans to focus on winning Slams next season. She's already in the record books as the oldest woman to hold the No. 1 ranking. She clinched that at age 31. She's 33 now.
Williams hasn't completed a tournament since winning the U.S. Open in September. She might be thinking, why risk further injury for a No. 1 ranking that can easily be regained in January?
If Williams plays, Sharapova will have to win enough points and hope Williams can't defend enough. By gaining the No. 2 spot Sharapova avoids landing in Williams' group at the year-end championships. The earliest the two would clash is in the semifinals.
Despite the lopsided head-to-head, this matchup remains the most celebrated and anticipated meeting in women's tennis. Sharapova fans dread seeing Williams in their favorite's path. Yet they relish the day Sharapova might defeat her tormentor. Williams fans delight in the 15-match winning streak.
Tennis great Tracy Austin said it best, per Hodgkinson, "Maria is the one who says that you can't talk about rivalries until she wins one - and she says that with a chuckle. Even so, if there were two players I would want to see competing in a big final, it would be those two."