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Maria Sharapova’s feud with Serena Williams, explained

In her memoir and beyond, Sharapova can’t stop using Williams to define her own career.

Like in any tennis match between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams in the past 13 years, the dominating figure in Sharapova’s new memoir, Unstoppable: My Life So Far, is Serena Williams. In the book, which came out this week, Sharapova explains why she believes she hasn’t beat William since 2004.

“In analyzing this, people talk about Serena’s strength, her serve and confidence, how her particular game matches up to my particular game, and, sure there is truth to all of that,” Sharapova writes, revisiting her 2004 Wimbledon upset over Williams, who was favored to win. “But, to me, the real answer was there, in this locker room, where I was changing and she was bawling. I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”

Williams is a prominent fixture in Sharapova’s book and in many of the popular narratives surrounding Sharapova.

“Serena Williams has marked the heights and the limits of my career — our stories are intertwined,” Sharapova writes. “It was Serena whom I beat in the Wimbledon final to emerge on the international stage at seventeen, and it’s Serena who’s given me the hardest time since.”

But with respect to Williams’s legacy, Sharapova is more of a footnote. Though Sharapova beat Williams one more time in 2004, at the WTA Championships in November, she’s since lost to Williams 18 straight times — the most recent of which was at the 2016 Australian Open.

Calling what exists between Williams and Sharapova a rivalry would be generous, since rivalries don’t typically involve an 18-streak steamroll.

Instead, what Sharapova and Williams have is a feud.

And it’s a feud that has captivated tennis fans and sportswriters even when the women’s matches have not. It’s offered a glimpse into the “real” world of tennis that lies beneath the sport’s scrim of decorum, handshakes, standard press conferences, and formality. And now, with Sharapova’s memoir and a solid chunk of it devoted to Williams, the public is getting its first prolonged look at Sharapova’s psychology and how she views the greatest women’s tennis player of all time.

Those looking for a juicy glimpse into the feud that’s engrossed women’s tennis for years should know that the name “Serena” shows up more than 100 times in Sharapova’s book, including nine times in the prologue alone. All signs point to Williams being Sharapova’s personal benchmark, idol, and frenemy and the standard that defines her career.

But the most fascinating part of the book might not be the gossip and speculation about Williams that Sharapova indulges in, but rather what it reveals about how Sharapova views and presents herself as an underdog and a victim. When you compare what Sharapova says to reality, it seems clear that being pitted against Williams has helped her benefit from their feud, in the form of lucrative endorsement deals, magazine spreads, and preferential treatment at professional tournaments. Sharapova also disturbingly exaggerates Williams’s physical presence and anger, positing that the combination of the two is the reason Sharapova has never again beaten Williams.

While Sharapova’s memoir is supposed to give her take on women’s tennis’s most famous feud, it doubles as a clear example of how the sport has often treated the two oppositely and unfairly.

The feud between Sharapova and Williams grew out of a rivalry that never was

To understand the depth of the Sharapova-Williams feud, it’s important to understand that at any given moment, the game of tennis tends to revolve around a single player. For long stretches in both men’s and women’s tennis, one player has usually become the face of the game. From 2002 to 2003, when Sharapova was just coming onto the scene, that player was Serena Williams.

Williams had just come off what’s known as the “Serena Slam,” a term she coined herself after she won four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments but not within the same calendar year (the term riffs on “Grand Slam,” which a player achieves when she consecutively sweeps the four annual grand slam tournaments — the Australian Open in January, the French Open in May, Wimbledon in July, and the US Open in August/September — in a single calendar year).

When any player displays the kind of dominance that Williams did, they tend to evolve the overall narrative of tennis. While sportswriters and fans inevitably exalt the player’s dominance and measure them against the greatest players in history, those same sportswriters and fans also exhibit an antsy urge to find the next greatest player: the up-and-comer who can challenge — and even beat — the sport’s current leader.

At Wimbledon in 2004, that up-and-comer was Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova, then 17, was touted as the next big thing — a blonde, Siberian-born, Nick Bollettieri-trained ball striker with a peacock-like grunt who could hit as hard as anyone on the women’s tour. Sharapova was seeded 13th, and it seemed like she was still a couple of years away from a breakthrough win. But she made her way through the draw, notching a comeback win in the semifinals after being a set down against American Lindsay Davenport, who was seeded fifth. Williams, who had beaten Sharapova at a tournament in Miami earlier that year, was playing Wimbledon while recovering from injury.

Sharapova ultimately faced Williams in the championship, which saw Sharapova in the zone and Williams looking a little rusty after some time off; Sharapova came away with a dominating win and a boatload of expectations. Sharapova and Williams would play again that year at the season-ending WTA Tour Championships, with Sharapova winning again.

From that tournament on, the hype surrounding Sharapova was that she was one of the few players who could beat Williams and challenge her greatness. The next great tennis rivalry had arrived — or so many people thought.

However, Sharapova’s 2004 win at the WTA Tour Championships was the last time she won a professional match against Williams. She did go on to win four more Grand Slam tournaments against other opponents, showing that she’s still a very skilled tennis player.

Instead of becoming Williams’s only formidable rival, Sharapova became the subject of a different narrative: Though she could seemingly beat anyone not named Serena Williams, whenever the two faced off, people questioned whether she might once again tap into the Wimbledon magic she’d had in 2004. That’s a huge reason there’s so much interest in her memoir: People want to read Sharapova’s take on 13 years of losses to Williams and find out whether she thinks she’s capable of beating Williams again.

The Sharapova-Williams feud is also personal, and has been since about 2013

Maria Sharapova is an entertaining tennis player — but more so off the court than on. Though her match style is loud and one-dimensional, she knows how to play up the saltiness and drama that accompany the sport.

She isn’t afraid to take jabs at her opponents and sprinkle her post-match interviews with tantalizing amounts of shade. For example, at the 2012 Australian Open, Polish player Agnieszka Radwańska criticized Sharapova’s trademark grunt, calling it “pretty annoying.”

When asked about this comment in the press conference, Sharapova had a response that would make a drag queen shed a tear of joy. “Isn’t she back in Poland already?” she replied, referring to the fact that Radwańska had lost and was on her way home. “When did she get the chance to say that?”

Some other juicy Sharapova moments: In 2012, she sarcastically told the crowd at a tournament in Stuttgart, Germany, that her opponent Victoria Azarenka was “extremely injured” after Azarenka took a medical timeout during their match. Similarly, in 2014, she gestured to officials to check Ana Ivanovic’s blood pressure after Ivanovic took what appeared to be a fake injury timeout to stall and stop Sharapova’s momentum during a match in Ohio.

In a sport where players are separated by a net and 78 feet of court, and said players are expected to be on their best behavior, Sharapova’s sly digs add intrigue.

But Williams isn’t afraid to throw shade or speak her mind either.

In 2009, after she won Wimbledon against her sister Venus, Serena Williams was asked if she saw herself as the No. 1 player in the world even though she was ranked No. 2 at the time — she had won the Australian Open earlier that year.

“I see myself as No. 2; that’s where I am. I think Dinara [Safina] did a great job to get to No. 1. She won Rome and Madrid,” Williams said — referring to two clay court tournaments that aren’t as big as the Grand Slams Williams had won. Williams and the press room at Wimbledon erupted in a cackle. She was also wearing a shirt that said, “Are You Looking at my Titles?” during the interview.

The salt and sass of Williams and Sharapova would meet prior to Wimbledon in 2013, though not on the tennis court. Instead, the two had a war of words over one of Williams’s rumored exes, pro tennis player Grigor Dimitrov. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Williams seemed to talk about Sharapova dating Dimitrov, though she never named Sharapova outright:

“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 in an interview of her own.

“At the end of the day, we have a tremendous amount of respect for what we do on the court. I just think she should be talking about her accomplishments, her achievements, rather than everything else that’s just getting attention and controversy,” Sharapova told the press, before hinting that Williams was dating her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.

“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. … Talk about other things, but not draw attention to other things. She has so much in her life, many positives, and I think that’s what it should be about,” Sharapova said.

After this apparent spat, neither player did particularly well at Wimbledon — both lost earlier than they were expected to. The only matches the two had played that year were relative duds (only one match went to three sets, and that third set was a 6-0 rout), and they didn’t play each other after their war of words. But the barbs each woman had served ramped up interest in the feud between the two, even if what happened on the court did not.

In spite of its reputation as an elegant, gentle sport, tennis had a saucy catfight on its hands. And the press and fans drank up the bad blood between the two.

A couple of years later, in 2015, Williams was asked about her dominating record against Sharapova. She said she “loved” playing Sharapova, allowing people to read into it what they’d like.

“I take a lot of pride in it,” Williams told USA Today. “I think my game matches up well against her. I love playing her. I think it’s fun. I love her intensity. … I just have the time of my life.”

Sharapova’s experience illustrates how professional tennis is a business, for better or worse

When talking about clashes between Sharapova and Williams, it’s easy to get lost in the drama and soapiness. It brings an element of fun to a sport that can be austere and boring. But their feud also represents larger issues within tennis, as well as the unfairness baked into the sport.

For starters, even though Williams has 23 Grand Slam singles tournament championships to Sharapova’s five, it wasn’t until 2016 that Williams broke Sharapova’s 11-year reign as the highest-paid woman athlete in the world.

This isn’t Sharapova’s fault — tennis players can’t control what sponsors want to pay them. They just sign on the dotted line, and no one ever said that getting a Nike deal was a meritocracy.

But how much Sharapova gets paid compared to a player who will go down in history as the greatest woman tennis player of all time does show how far being blonde, attractive, and talented can get you when you’re a woman in the sport. To be clear, Sharapova’s talent isn’t a fluke — she’s won as many singles Grand Slam tournaments as Martina Hingis, a former world No. 1 and the dominant player in the late ’90s, and is only two behind Venus Williams. But she’s nowhere near the tennis player Serena Williams is.

And there’s another wrinkle that affects how Williams surpassed Sharapova’s earnings in 2016: Sharapova announced in March of that year that she had failed a drug test for meldonium, a drug that doping officials had recently banned because it can help an athlete enhance his or her endurance and recovery time. Sharapova said she had been taking the drug for 10 years (meaning that Williams was routinely beating Sharapova while the latter was on performance-enhancing drugs). Sharapova was subsequently banned from tennis for 15 months, a reduction from the standard two-year sentence.

Sharapova’s official story is that she was unaware of the new ban on meldonium, and that taking it was an oversight. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had begun monitoring the drug and banned it in 2015, and the debate over the validity of Sharapova’s argument and the ethics of whether a performance-enhancing drug is illegal in any instance or only illegal when it’s banned is its own separate story. But now that Sharapova is allowed to play tennis again, there’s a question of how much of a cushion to give her and whether she’s receiving undeserved perks because she’s marketable and talented.

Her current ranking of 103 isn’t high enough to qualify her for some tournaments, including the recently concluded US Open. Yet some of those tournaments have given Sharapova wildcards into the main draws, where she can bypass qualifying rounds. (Players with low rankings usually have to play and advance in qualifying matches before getting to compete in the draw at larger tournaments.) And at the US Open in particular, former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki accused organizers of giving Sharapova preferential treatment by putting Sharapova on center court for her matches.

Wozniacki said:

[W]hen you look on center court — I understand completely the business side of things and everything — but someone who comes back from a drug sentence, performance-enhancing drugs, and then all of the sudden gets to play every single match on Center Court, I think that’s a questionable thing to do.

Wozniacki brings up a good point: that tennis is as much a business as a competition. As much as tournament officials and executives want to showcase good gameplay, they are there to make money and get ratings. In organizers’ eyes, Sharapova has more name recognition than Wozniacki and happens to have more Grand Slam tournament wins, too.

Putting Sharapova on center court helps draw fans and viewers to the tournament, and it also helps out Sharapova’s sponsors, like Nike, who get to showcase their goods during primetime TV; after her first night match at the US Open last month, USA Today devoted an entire article to Sharapova’s black Nike dress, calling it a “winner.”

In short, the way professional tennis is run has benefited Sharapova, even though she isn’t the sport’s best player and even though she has a doping ban in her past.

Sharapova isn’t a victim, but that hasn’t stopped her from portraying herself as one

Sharapova can’t control what Nike wants to pay her versus what it wants to pay other people, or what court US Open officials put her on. What she can control is how she talks about tennis and about her relationship about Williams in her new book, and what she’s said fits into a troubling pattern of how tennis has portrayed Serena Williams.

Williams and her sister Venus Williams are the two most successful tennis players in the modern era. They’re also black. And throughout their careers, every milestone they’ve hit has come with a side of racism and sexism. Their bodies have been scrutinized and lampooned. Their integrity has been questioned, and rumors about them taking steroids have circulated repeatedly. They’ve been called gorillas and likened to men playing against women.

The underlying theme throughout their careers has been centered on one thing: that there’s something incomprehensible and unfair about black athletes beating stellar — sometimes they’ll be mythologized as being superhumanly strong; other times it’s something more nefarious, like being on steroids.

Sharapova’s words about Williams in her book fit this pattern.

“First of all, her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV,” Sharapova writes. “She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall.”

According to their official listed heights, Sharapova is 6-foot-2 and Williams is 5-foot-9. It’s bizarre to see Sharapova refer to how towering another player is when she herself is 5 inches taller.

Further, Sharapova emphasizes her perceived smallness in a couple of phrases about how she thinks of herself as being a “skinny kid,” or her size in comparison to Williams’s: “She was a woman. I was a girl. She was big. I was small.”

Never mind the reality that Sharapova is taller than Williams, or that she was temporarily banned from tennis for taking a performance-enhancing drug; the picture she’s painting is one in which Williams is a physical Goliath and Sharapova is a David.

Giving Sharapova the benefit of the doubt, she might be unaware of the history or the harmful way her words fit into the pattern of dismissing Serena Williams and other black athletes (see also: how Russian gymnasts have talked about Simone Biles).

In summing up her relationship with Williams, Sharapova floats the idea that the two women could mend whatever relationship they have and become friends, and follows it up with an even more audacious one: that she’s just a little bit responsible for Williams’s success.

“I think, to some extent, we have driven each other. Maybe that’s better than being friends. Maybe that’s what it takes to fire up the proper fury,” Sharapova writes. “Only when you have that intense antagonism can you find the strength to finish her off. But who knows? Someday, when all this is in our past, maybe we’ll become friends.”

Sharapova’s deflection is sly. She postures that Serena Williams is so angry or so upset over Sharapova’s 2004 Wimbledon win that it’s driven her to beat Sharapova over and over. “Not long after the tournament, I heard that Serena told a friend — who then told me — ‘I will never lose to that little bitch again,’” Sharapova writes.

Sharapova doesn’t cop to having the kind of “intense antagonism” that Williams has, and hints that she’s already risen above or is incapable of tapping into such an emotion. She also hints that a friendship with her is right there waiting for Williams once Williams gets over her incendiary wrath.

According to Sharapova, Williams’s success against her comes from some hot anger toward Sharapova, or from being physically more imposing. But when Sharapova, who has benefited from the way tennis is run in so many ways, looks at her own wins and success, she presents herself as having thrived against all odds, especially in the face of haters and a doping ban. It’s that kind of blind audacity that allows Sharapova to name her memoir Unstoppable when her career has literally been stopped, not by Williams, not by organizers and sponsors who shepherd her to center court, but rather by her own record.

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Author: Alex Abad-Santos

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