Will the first-round U.S. Open meeting between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova be a good match in terms of play quality? Probably not. Does it promise rich entertainment value anyway? Hell yes.
The focus will be on the stilted handshakes, shouted exclamations, facial expressions, the lingering camera in between points. It’s always satisfying to see two people who dislike each other in public hash out their differences with a fuzzy ball.
One major development was Sharapova’s 2017 book Unstoppable: My Life So Far, which turned out to be a lot more about Serena Williams than anyone—including Serena Williams—expected. “One-hundred percent hearsay,” Williams said when asked about passages in the book that described her crying after their 2004 Wimbledon final, which Sharapova won. “Guttural sobs, the sort that make you heave for air, the sort that scares you,” Sharapova wrote.
They’ve also jabbed at each other’s romantic history. Here’s Williams taking a shot in a 2013 Rolling Stone profile:
“She begins every interview with ‘I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’ – it’s so boring,” says Serena in a loud voice. “She’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.” (An educated guess is she’s talking about Sharapova, who is now dating Grigor Dimitrov, one of Serena’s rumored exes.)
Sharapova responded by calling attention to what was then just a rumored relationship between Williams and her coach Patrick Mourataglou. “If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids.”
The two Nike athletes have also both jockeyed for endorsement money over time, with Sharapova holding the (admittedly dubious) title of best-paid female athlete for years, even as Williams piled up major title after major title, clarifying that she was the sport’s most dominant figure. It doesn’t take a genius to draw out the subtext about race, body type, and marketability in America. (Serena’s on top of this year’s edition, however that’s supposedly calculated.)
This personal history is what gives the beef its juice, because the on-court rivalry has been lopsided their entire adult lives. Sharapova won two of their three first matches, which all took place in 2004, the year she turned 17. Since then, Williams has won 18 matches straight. Only three of those 18 went to a third set. Williams has beaten her in the finals of the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon—though this will be the first meeting of any kind at the U.S. Open.
It’s been over three years since they last went at it. The two were on course to play a hyped-up fourth-round match at the French Open last year, but on the day of, Serena Williams withdrew from the tournament with a pectoral injury.
Sharapova, who has won five majors and probably would’ve had more if not for injuries and/or Serena, is still one of the best players of her era. This might sound like a close matchup to the uninitiated, but in reality they’re at very different junctures of their careers. While Sharapova served her 15-month doping ban, Williams won her 22nd and 23rd major titles. This year Sharapova has had a quiet season, sitting out all of February, March, and May due to a shoulder injury that required surgery, and logging no notable wins besides an upset of No. 3 seed Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open in January. She’s posted a 2-4 record since her return to the tour, and is now ranked No. 87 in the world, which explains how this first-round matchup even came to be. (Or open your third eye—the powers that be wanted it to happen.)
Meanwhile, Serena has made the finals of two of the last four majors, and is ranked No. 8. She looked deadly in her one U.S. Open tune-up event in Toronto, logging her first win over current No. 1 Naomi Osaka and making the final, before a back spasm forced her to withdraw. So long as her body cooperates, Williams is still right at the top. That hasn’t been true of Sharapova for quite a while now.