Serena-Sharapova clash on hold

For a while there, it looked as if the Madrid combined event was destined to produce the WTA final most fans want to see: top-ranked Serena Williams clashing with No. 8 Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova has been thigh-deep in blood (her own, as well as that of her rivals) as she has inexorably slashed her way toward a date with Williams. You have to hand it to Sharapova: Her wins have not come easily, or without a heavy physical toll, but she’s managed to beat down her opponents even as they’ve come close to laying her out for good. Half of the women in the WTA top 20 probably wake up some nights in a cold sweat with Sharapova’s blood-curdling shrieks resounding in their ears.

After a comfortable tuneup in the second round in Madrid, Sharapova struggled in two of her next three matches -- most recently Friday, when she had to recover from being down a set and a break to No. 2 seed Li Na before she recovered to win the tiebreaker, and a 6-3 third set, to advance to a meeting with Agnieszka Radwanska.

Given that Sharapova is 9-2 against Radwanska, you can expect her to be in the final Sunday. But it won’t be opposite Williams. That coveted chance to notch a W against Williams was killed when the top seed pulled out of Madrid (in which she’s had some struggles of her own) to rest a thigh that has been troubling her since last month.

You could call this latest episode “Rivalry Interrupted,” although this is a rivalry in a very narrow sense. Unlike the rivalry between, say, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, this one isn’t driven by results -- after all, Sharapova hasn’t beaten Williams in almost a full decade (that’s right, a decade) and trails in head-to-head meetings 16-2.

So why all the fuss?

Well, there are a few reasons. For starters, there’s the contrast between the two women -- one that is obvious and juicy in a dozen ways. For another, Sharapova seems to be the only WTA player who has the grit and determination to stand up to Williams, and that’s a start toward making things interesting.

Sharapova takes her beatings, some of them savage, without flinching and with her lips pursed. And she keeps coming back for more.

And don’t forget that, in sports, everyone, including Serena Williams, needs someone to hate -- and to be hated by. Just think Yankees-Red Sox or Packers-Bears. That also holds true for fans. Fans of either woman have a license to hate, thanks to her opposite number. You should all write each other thank-you notes.

For fans of the game, not just the personalities in play, the blossoming of Sharapova in recent years into a terrific clay-court player is perceived as a much-needed playing-field leveler. On any other surface against Williams, Sharapova has to struggle on a steep, upward grade while Williams barrels downhill. The two have met on clay only four times (Williams won every match), but Sharapova’s chances of getting at least a little payback on dirt are improving with each passing clay-court season.

Sharapova’s game on clay has improved dramatically. Since 2012, she is 45-3 on clay -- those three streak-busting losses inflicted by Williams, who’s done a terrific job holding Sharapova at bay. But can Serena continue to do so as her age creeps upward (now 32) and niggling and serious injuries become more common?

To be sure, Williams' record on clay looks less than prohibitive, only because she’s so good on all the other surfaces. She is 134-31 for her career on clay (compared to 400-65 on hard courts and 79-11 on grass), and she won just two of her 17 Grand Slam titles on the red clay of Roland Garros.

True, Williams defeated Sharapova in the French Open final last year, and while that was a straight-sets win, it was a very tense and close 6-4, 6-4.

Right now, Williams is still scheduled to play in Rome next week, but I’m not sure the wise money is booking air and hotel reservations in anticipation of a meeting of the two women there. That’s all right. The prospect of a Williams-Sharapova clash in Paris gets more tantalizing if they avoid meeting until then.