Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Bright Spots, 'Bagels' and Pursuit of a Title ; Sharapova Is Capable of Testing Williams, but There's No Room for Error

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Bright Spots, 'Bagels' and Pursuit of a Title ; Sharapova Is Capable of Testing Williams, but There's No Room for Error

Article excerpt

Maria Sharapova is capable of testing Williams in the French Open final, but a match in March underscores that there's no room for error.

When Maria Sharapova tries to find a bright spot in her rivalry with Serena Williams, she sifts through the wreckage of a career spent lunging after Williams's powerful ground strokes and watching serves whiz by. She clings to the first set -- a single set, which Sharapova won, 6-4 -- in the final at Key Biscayne last March.

What might be most instructive about that set is not that Sharapova played nearly flawlessly for an hour, able to keep Williams on the defensive with good serving and deep ground strokes that kissed the lines. It is what came after that might be the best indicator of what is to come in the final Saturday.

Sharapova's serve went awry, Williams reeled off the last 10 games and won the match 4-6, 6-3, 6-0. Afterward Williams remarked, "It wasn't my day. Maria played the best I've seen her play."

And for that, Sharapova was rewarded with the most dreaded score in tennis: a 6-0 set known as a bagel.

This year is the 25th anniversary of Steffi Graf's monument to perfection, a 6-0, 6-0, 32-minute decimation of Natasha Zvereva in the 1988 women's final. While Williams has been tested just once in the last two weeks, in a three-set quarterfinal against Svetlana Kuznetsova, her level of dominance over semifinalist Sara Errani on Thursday in a 6-0, 6-1 victory, and her recent history of bludgeoning Sharapova, who has not beaten Williams since 2004, raise the question: Could Williams come close to Graf's accomplishment in the final Saturday against the second-seeded Sharapova?

Not likely. While both Graf and Williams entered their finals as prohibitive favorites, Zvereva, after all, was just 17 years old and the No.13 seed in 1988, not a four-time major champion. It was the only final of a major Zvereva would reach in her career.

Although Zvereva was on an incredible run -- she had beaten Martina Navratilova 6-3, 7-6 in the fourth round -- Graf was at the height of her powers. She won all four majors, plus the Olympic gold medal, in 1988. Graf dropped just 20 games in seven matches at the tournament -- nine of them to Gabriela Sabatini in the semifinal -- and by pounding forehand winners, she lost just 13 points in the final.

Philippe Bouin, the longtime chronicler of tennis for L'Equipe, the leading sports newspaper in France, covered the 1988 tournament. He was writing a preview of the men's final for the next day's paper while Graf played, and the match went by so quickly that he almost missed it.

"I wanted to go later," Bouin recalled of the Graf match Friday. "It was finished before I could finish my article."

Bouin remembers seeing just one similarly lopsided match in tennis, when John McEnroe dismissed Jimmy Connors in the 1984 Wimbledon final, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. …

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