Serena vs. Sharapova: A great nonrivalry

Serena Williams rang in the new year and Maria Sharapova got her bell rung in the Brisbane semifinals, a match that may have been a preview of Grand Slam matches to come in 2014 -- starting with a potential rematch as early as the end of this month at the Australian Open.

It’s hard to know just how much significance to attach to Williams' 6-2, 7-6 (7) triumph in Brisbane, which was her 15th win over Sharapova in 17 matches, and her ninth hard-court triumph in 10 tries over the WTA No. 4. At the rate she’s going, Williams could leave Sharapova winless in a decade of confrontations. All she needs to do is continue her domination of Sharapova for the rest of this year.

Some rivalry, huh?

The truly weird thing about this matchup is that it sometimes seems these women were made to either become the best of friends (they are, after all, kindred spirits in numerous ways, starting with their fierce ambitions) -- or to gag at the very sight of each other. And we all know how that turned out. It’s funny, but rivalries among good friends can be as, or even more, appealing than rivalries between bitter enemies. But we don’t have to deconstruct this idea any further, because no matter what the TV commentators, pundits and hype merchants say, this is no rivalry.

What this is, folks, is the best nonrivalry in the history of tennis -- an intriguing apposition of games and personalities that seems ideal but for one tiny detail that tennis insiders tend to forget: Williams inevitably and routinely crushes Sharapova. It’s so bad for the budding candy magnate from Russia that, if she finally does get another W, the commentarial is apt to react as if she just won Wimbledon.

All this is unfair to Williams, but that’s what happens when you do your job too well. And given how enthusiastic Williams still is about playing, it’s almost inevitable that Sharapova will tag her a few times because her oppressor is five-and-a-half years older and bound to start slowing down. When she does, Sharapova is likely to be waiting (barring further shoulder problems, which is no given), and she’ll be bold enough to take her chances -- and to make the most of the outcome.

In Brisbane, though, Williams once again showed that her biggest obstacle in this nonrivalry may be her tendency to treat Sharapova with contempt. Her body language and general demeanor suggest condescension, which is understandable given the history of these two. How would you feel if you kept crushing somebody and a chorus of onlookers kept identifying the victim as your great rival? But condescension is dangerous, because it suppresses useful emotions in what is still a game in which emotions play an enormous role.

Williams was able to win this last match without a great deal of help from her greatest weapon, her serve. But Sharapova wasted some chances to make Williams' life uncomfortable, and after all, this was just her first tournament since the midsummer of 2013. Given that, she played very well and seemed somewhat rejuvenated by her new coach, Sven Groeneveld.

Sharapova held her own in some brutal rallies, making 11 fewer unforced errors than Williams, and also did some good unexpected work at the net, winning six of her seven chances there. As is often the case, Sharapova’s serve was a mixed blessing, ruining her day when it wasn’t otherwise occupied ruining Williams'. In the end, it was once again that erratic serve that most hurt Sharapova.

The major takeaway in this probing first meeting of the year is that Sharapova might have gotten her bell rung again, but she isn’t going to quit this enterprise anytime soon. She has a new coach and a few years on her nemesis, so Williams will need to pay close attention and bring all her strengths and emotions to bear if she hopes to keep this a nonrivalry.