On the surface, this Australian Open women's final should be a blockbuster affair. It's No. 1 vs. No. 2, a five-time Slam champion vs. an 18-time Slam champion and a showdown of two of the most famous female athletes on the planet.
That's because Serena leads the head-to-head against Sharapova 16-2 and hasn't lost to the Russian in over 10 years, when a 17-year-old Sharapova shocked the world by beating Serena in the 2004 Wimbledon final and then again later that year at the WTA Tour Finals.
That means the last time that Sharapova beat Serena, George W. Bush was still finishing up his first term in the office, and everyone was proudly sporting Lance Armstrong's yellow Livestrong bracelets.
A decade later, the world looks a lot different, as does the rivalry—if you can even call it that—between Serena and Sharapova.
Both have accomplished phenomenal things since those early days—Sharapova has won five majors, one of each plus an extra French Open, has been No. 1 in the rankings and bounced back from what could have been a devastating mid-career shoulder injury.
But Sharapova's accomplishments pale in comparison to Serena, who now has 18 majors and is trying to track down Steffi Graf's record of 22 before her career is over. At 33 years old, Serena is still the No. 1 player in the world and has no true rival on the WTA Tour.
That's because when the stakes get higher and the competition gets tougher, Serena simply reaches another level of greatness. Nothing encapsulates that like her dominance over Sharapova.
Serena has 15 straight wins over Sharapova, and 12 of those have come in straight sets. In fact, the last duel they had that was close late in the third set was their semifinal match 10 years ago at the Australian Open, which Serena won 2-6, 7-5, 8-6.
After her semifinal win on Thursday against her countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova, Sharapova talked to the press about why the matchup against Serena has been such a difficult one for her. Via AustralianOpen.com:
I think her power and her aggressiveness, I think that's always made me a little bit too aggressive, maybe going for a little bit more than I had to. You know, she's great at making players hit that shot that you don't necessarily have to go for. You know, maybe going for a little too much, going on the line.
It's been a really difficult matchup for me, but, you know, I am a competitor.
Sharapova is a historically great competitor, so you can never count her out despite the unflattering history. Plus, we've already seen an infamous losing streak snapped in this tournament, as Russell Fuller of the BBC points out:
Of course, the real reason Sharapova might have an extra pep in her step headed into this final is because she is essentially playing with house money in Melbourne. In the second round, facing her unheralded compatriot Alexandra Panova, Sharapova was on the ropes and saved two match points before prevailing 6-1, 4-6, 7-5.
Since that moment, Sharapova has played some of her best tennis—she hasn't dropped another set, and hasn't lost more than three games in any set she's played in over a week. There should be no questions about her form or motivation headed into the final.
While many players would lose hope, Sharapova is not outwardly discouraged by her struggles against Serena. In fact, it's just the opposite. As Christopher Clarey of The New York Times pointed out, "[Serena] has also provided [Sharapova] with great motivation to add levels to her game and find an extra half-step along the baseline."
But no matter what Sharapova does, so much of the match is out of her hands because she is facing off against one of the greatest players of all time on Saturday. And unfortunately for the Russian, Serena respects her too much not to bring her absolute best to the court when they play. Serena expressed that sentiment in post-match comments, per the Australian Open's official Twitter account:
Serena hasn't been at her best throughout the fortnight in Melbourne, but unlike the last few years Down Under when she's experienced shocking exits midway through the tournament, she's made adjustments and gotten past tricky matches against youngsters Elina Svitolina and Garbine Muguruza.
The five-time Australian Open champion faced compatriot Madison Keys in the semifinals. The 19-year-old was in devastating form and seemed to be in complete control of the match at times, but Serena still managed to win 7-6, 6-2.
The truth is, while there are no guarantees in tennis and Sharapova deserves nothing but respect, all signs are pointing toward another victory for Serena.
But predictable or not, on Saturday we will get to see Serena chase history and Sharapova try to overcome the biggest obstacle in her career.
Sounds like must-see TV to me.