One of the most enticing rivalries in all of tennis continues to be one of the most lopsided.
Together, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have earned more than $100 million in prize money, with the glamorous duo boosting that lofty total through endorsements — especially the latter, who is habitually named the world’s richest female athlete.
They are also considered the two most mentally tough active players in women’s tennis.
But when Williams crushed Sharapova 6-2 6-4 in southwest London on Thursday to reach the Wimbledon final against Garbine Muguruza — a 21-year-old who hadn’t advanced past the second round in two prior visits to SW19 — it was her 17th consecutive victory over the U.S.-based Russian.
“Whenever I know I have to play Maria, I know I have to be focused because she wasn’t the best in the world for no reason,” Williams told reporters, referring to Sharapova’s former ranking of No. 1.
Sharapova last defeated Williams at the year-end championships in 2004 and has dropped the past 14 sets to her.
“I expect myself to be a champion of these events, and it’s disappointing to come out as a loser because I know my level can be there, and my level can be at the point of holding these championship trophies,” the fourth seed told reporters. “I know that that’s what keeps me going forward.”
Having brushed aside Sharapova, Williams can now focus firmly on Saturday’s final, when she will attempt to overcome Muguruza to complete the “Serena Slam” for a second time and land a 21st major.
The 20th seed earlier edged 2012 finalist Agnieszka Radwanska 6-2 3-6 6-3 in a less talked about but ultimately more compelling semifinal to become the first Spanish woman to make a grand slam final since Conchita Martinez — her Fed Cup captain — at the French Open 15 years ago. The Spanish men, led by Rafael Nadal, have no such drought.
Muguruza is bidding to become the second Spanish woman to triumph at Wimbledon after Martinez in 1994.
Only two other Spanish women, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Lili de Alvarez — in the 1920s — have ever contested the final of the most prestigious event in tennis.
“You work all your life to achieve a grand slam final,” Muguruza, the winner of one career title to Williams’ 67, told reporters. “It’s like a dream, a present after the hard work.”
Even though Williams will be the considerable favorite, don’t forget that the hard-hitting Muguruza beat her at the French Open last year and claimed a set off the world No. 1 at this year’s Australian Open.
In short, she’s had more success than Sharapova.
“Some losses you’re angry about and some losses you learn from,” said Williams. “That loss I think I learned the most from in a long time. I got so much better after that loss. I was able to improve a lot.”
Williams is rarely beaten at this stage of grand slams — she hasn’t, for example, lost any of her last 11 semifinals at majors — and any hopes of a tight match between the 33-year-old and Sharapova quickly vanished.
Dropping serve from 30-0 in the first game wasn’t in the script for Sharapova, and she soon fell 4-1 behind.
After surviving an erratic outing against Britain’s Heather Watson less than a week ago, Williams has turned into a different player, raising her level against the grand slam-winning trio of older sister Venus, Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova.
Ominously for Muguruza, Williams’ serve, arguably the best the women’s game has ever seen, is firing. After delivering 17 aces in three sets against Azarenka in the quarterfinals, Williams tallied 13 against Sharapova, including three in the final game.
She didn’t face a break point.
Sharapova needed to have one of her finest serving days to engineer the upset, but two aces were never going to be enough as she served six double faults. Post shoulder surgery in 2008, the serve hasn’t been the same.
One of those double faults allowed Williams to earn the lone break of the second set in the fifth game.
When Williams smacked a winning serve out wide on her second match point, she earned a 279th grand slam to move past Steffi Graf and into third place on the all-time Open Era list.
With a title at the All England Club and then at the U.S. Open in September, Williams would match Graf in achieving the calendar-year grand slam.
Muguruza has a promising future.
She lacks Williams’ power — not many, though, can match the American — and the variety of the ever popular Radwanska, but packs a hefty punch with her flat ground strokes from the back of the court.
Radwanska met a similar type of player in the quarterfinals in Madison Keys, but Muguruza wasn’t as generous with her unforced errors in the early stages Thursday.
She attacked Radwanska’s modest serves, drilled balls in the corners and didn’t give the Pole any time to work her off-speed magic.
When the Venezuelan-born Muguruza led 3-1 in the second set and had Radwanska at deuce, the end seemed near.
But the occasion got to Muguruza and Radwanska was grateful. She claimed six straight games to lead 1-0 by a break in the third.
“I just (got) really nervous,” admitted Muguruza. “And I think Radwanska, she was waiting for this moment.”
With Muguruza doing the majority of the dictating, the contest was always on her racket. If she could rediscover her form, Radwanska would find it difficult.
She did, breaking for 4-2 thanks in part to a perfect lob.
Radwanska had one final opportunity, holding two break points at 3-5. On the first, a Williams like serve paved the way for a drive volley winner. On the second, Radwanska’s second serve return clipped the top of the tape — and landed on her own side.
Another drive-volley winner sealed the two-hour tussle, Muguruza then dropping her racket and falling face first onto the grass.
Her parents have watched her matches from Barcelona and a superstitious Muguruza didn’t guarantee them showing up Saturday, although it sounded like they might.
“They said to me two days ago, ‘We want to come,'” said Muguruza. “I said, ‘No, don’t change anything.’ I brush my teeth at the same time, I wake up with the same leg.
“I’m going to talk to them now, to see if they’re going to come or not.”