It took less than five minutes for the sense of ceremony that preceded the semi-final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to be supplanted by an inevitability that has become numbingly familiar.
Sharapova, serving from the Royal Box end amid flawless conditions on Centre Court, was broken after double-faulting three times in her opening service game. Once Williams consolidated with a pair of heat-seeking 118mph aces, the greatest front-runner in sports had all the edge she needed.
The world’s two highest-profile sportswomen may compete for the same endorsements, column inches and trophies, but Williams’s straightforward victory to book a place in the final – where she will face the Spanish ingénue Garbiñe Muguruza – proved once again this is no more a rivalry than hammer v nail.
“It’s never easy to beat such a great player who’s had such a wonderful career,” Williams said following a 6-4, 6-2 victory in which she crunched 29 winners and 13 aces. “Whenever you play someone that has beaten you before, you get really focused.”
No one can accuse the world No1 of having a short memory. Williams has now won 17 straight matches against Sharapova extending back 11 years, an astonishing run that includes six meetings at grand slams and three in major finals. In 13 outings since they met here five years ago, Sharapova has taken just one set.
The 33-year-old from Compton, California flummoxed Sharapova with her rangy court coverage and ability to uncork flat, sharply angled groundstrokes with depth and pace. What few moments of danger Williams encountered, she escaped with efficiency and aplomb. Sharapova faced break points in six of her nine service games while Williams did not face a break point.
What’s happened with Williams v Sharapova can no longer be explained away as an anomaly. The five-times Wimbledon champion has mastered an oppressive, pugilistic style that Sharapova has neither the nerve nor tactical versatility to match.
“I always expect her to play the best tennis against myself,” a despondent Sharapova said. “You have to be able not to just produce your best tennis, but more. Obviously it hasn’t happened for me.”
Now she is one win from holding all four grand slam titles simultaneously, an achievement so rare she became its namesake – the “Serena Slam” – when she first did it in 2003. And with losses in only four major finals out of 24 played, she is no doubt the overwhelming favourite.
One mark of Williams’ excellence is how she has always heightened her game against the best of her era. Consider her head-to-head record against the other players who have spent time at No1 over the past decade: Victoria Azarenka (16 wins, 3 defeats), Caroline Wozniacki (10-1), Jelena Jankovic (10-4), Kim Clijsters (7-2), Dinara Safina (6-1), Ana Ivanovic (8-1), Amélie Mauresmo (10-2), Lindsay Davenport (10-4).
Only Justine Henin (8-6) kept it close among her top rivals, though Williams inflicted some famous beatings when they met. But no one has felt the back end of her wrath more consistently than Sharapova. “It’s strange because a lot of the people I grew up with are now on the legends tour,” Williams said with a laugh. “Me and Venus just laugh. We’re just enjoying our time. We’re so fortunate to still be playing. We feel just really overjoyed.”
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