Serena Williams has dominated Maria Sharapova on the court so consistently over the last decade that you might not remember the brief moment when we thought Sharapova was about to take the crown. Off the court, the beef has mostly stayed private - but when it hasn't, it's gotten pretty personal and uncomfortable.
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- This is Maria Sharapova's autobiography. For a book ostensibly about its author, the text talks a lot about someone else, Serena Williams. The book generated controversy because Sharapova's fixation with Serena encompasses more than just tennis. There is a narrative around these two. And a beef that hides just beneath its surface. Until it doesn't. To understand this beef, you first need to understand the tennis rivalry or lack thereof. Maria Sharapova entered the elite tennis circuit right as Serena Williams was reaching its pinnacle. It was the first of several pinnacles for Serena. Her career kinda looks like the Himalayas. The 16 year old from Russia made her major debut at the 2003 Australian Open. The same tournament that 21 year old Williams won to complete a streak of taking all four major championships consecutively over two years. The so-called Serena Slam. This was concrete evidence that tennis had a new monarch. Later in '03, Sharapova started to actually win some matches in major tournaments. While Serena suffered a setback. Damage to her left knee required surgery, and she pulled out of the tour for months. Carrying into the beginning of 2004. Williams missed more time than anticipated but booked some non-tennis gigs in the interim, which brought out the peanut gallery of critics wondering if Serena would regain her elite form, and if she took tennis seriously enough. But she returned to the court eventually and got back in the swing of things in tournament play, including a pretty smooth victory in her first ever meeting with Sharapova at the Miami Open. Serena wasn't 100% but she was getting there, and she battled her way into the Wimbledon final that year. Her opponent? Maria Sharapova. Who was only seeded 13th but mounted multiple comeback upsets to reach her first ever major final. To everyone's surprise the 17-year old commanded the match. She broke Serena early and won the first set. Then came back from behind in the second set to win Wimbledon. A historic upset that left people wondering if they were witnessing a tectonic shift in top women's tennis. Serena would later joke that that wasn't the real her at Wimbledon. But Sharapova suggested Williams accept this new reality. Then came back from a set down to beat Serena in the final of the 2004 WTA Championships. After Sharapova's two victories against Williams, many people found the notion of a new powerhouse in women's tennis irresistible. Sharapova had proven herself as a player but its important to acknowledge that she had equal appeal as a star. She was talented and she was conventionally attractive. Even Serena celebrated this. And the media found it particularly compelling. However the actual tennis part of all this reached a pivotal crossroads when Williams and Sharapova next met on the court. At the 2005 Australian Open semi-final. Sharapova served for three match points in the third set. On one of them she came very close to acing Williams for the win. But Serena fought off all three of those matchpoints and stormed back to win the match. She'd go on to win the whole tournament. Her first major championship since 03'. And I really can't stress enough that that meeting at the Australian Open which nearly went the other way, was pivotal as far as tennis is concerned. Sharapova's career since then has been great. With multiple major wins spaced out over the intervening decade and change. But each of those was earned in part by avoiding Serena in the bracket. Because, of course, Serena has more major victories than anyone in history. And while her presence on the tour has varied with her health. William has smoked Sharapova at every opportunity, going all the way back to 2005. That is not an exaggeration. After an extended period away from the game to tend to her physical and mental well-being. Williams faced the number one ranked Sharapova in the 2007 Australian Open final. Sharapova drilled Williams with an overhead in the first set. Serena stared her down, then dismantled her. Serena got Wimbledon revenge in 2010. She kicked Sharapova's ass at the London Olympics. She kicked Sharapova's ass at the French Open, typically the Russian's strongest major. She's kicked Sharapova's ass in Miami, Madrid, and the Middle East. Sharapova didn't get past Williams in the bracket again until the 2018 French Open. And that was because Serena retired before their match up with a pectoral injury. Maria's record against Serena up to that point was the two wins in 04' and 19 losses. So despite early signs that Sharapova might rival, or even overtake Williams, they have proven to be nowhere near equal on the court. Sharapova is a great tennis player. Williams is one of the greatest pro athletes in human history. But the dynamics change when Maria and Serena put down their rackets. They've got some stuff in common. Both speak their minds, but they never had anything particularly exciting to say about one another until 2013. When we learned Serena and Maria had something else in common. Grigor Dimitrov. That year Williams was profiled by Stephen Rodrick for Rolling Stone. And in the course of his access to Serena, Rodrick overheard and reported a phone conversation she had with her sister Venus that included the following quote about an unnamed subject. "She begins every interview with I'm so happy, "I'm so lucky, its so boring. "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". Everyone including Rodrick assumed Williams was talking about Sharapova who was at the time, dating Dimitrov. A Bulgarian tennis player who, according to rumors, was Serena's ex. And apparently had a black heart. For almost a decade these two had slugged it out on the court with barely any sign of real animosity. Yet all of a sudden here was this candid sign of beef published in a damn magazine. Serena quickly apologized to Sharapova both privately and in public. - Sharapova seemed to accept the apology. - But she got a little dig in there too. - That right there, was Maria implying that Serena dated her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. Williams left it at that. And both players returned to taking the high road, mostly. Serena did give one quote about how much she cherished her dominant record against Sharapova. And Sharapova told The New York Times she had the utmost respect for Williams on the court. But off the court things were different. Observers thought they saw the two players avoiding one another on the court at Brisbane in 2014. But any hostility was unspoken or passive aggressive at worst. William's even tweeted one time about how much she loved Sharapova's fashion. But there was no doubt after the boyfriend comments that, beef exists below the surface. And further flare ups have illuminated even more. See, Serena and Maria have other stuff in common. They are for instance both among the highest paid female athletes in the world. Interestingly William didn't become number one in that ranking until 2016. Sharapova had been highest paid for the 11 years preceding that, despite being the less accomplished player. And the financial hit Sharapova took in 2016, probably had to do with her failing a test for banned substances. There is some irony in that because Williams has been pestered for years about her muscular physique. Despite never having failed a drug test. In 2014 Sharapova herself condemned disgusting remarks members of the Russian Federation made about the appearance of the Williams sisters. Maria knows full well that Serena has been subject to racism her whole career. Both explicit racist slurs and implicit racism couched in comments about her body or her demeanor. Which brings us back to the book. It's not surprising that Sharapova would talk about Williams frequently in telling her life story. Serena's name even comes up in the about the author section. And most of these many, many, mentions are respectful even reverent of the greatest player ever. But Sharapova also made some puzzling choices in here. Mostly concentrated around the story of beating Serena at Wimbledon. She describes the scene in the locker room following the match. Serena bawling and emitting guttural sobs, and she suggests Serena hated her and vowed to never lose to her again. And then there is this part. The bit about Sharapova being a skinny kid, that echoes other lines in the book contrasting their appearances. Like, harping on Serena's thick legs and how she is intimidating and strong and tall, really tall. Which like, yes, these two are built differently but, even as a teenager Sharapova towered over Williams. It's just an odd thing to dwell on. Once Serena caught wind of these passages she addressed them in her own way. Soon after the book came out in 2017, she wrote a Reddit post about her daughter that was addressed to her mother but seemed to respond to the comments about her physique in the book. While Sharapova did what she could to explain those comments. - And said she would speak to Serena one on one about what she wrote. - But whatever came of that Williams still sounded perturbed by the book a year later. - Sharapova insists she and Serena should be close since they have so much in common. - But there are just too many factors chilling any potential warmth between these two. On the court there is a lopsided rivalry with one early historic exception. Off the court there is a public dialogue. Two people exchanging comments about one another, that have been petty at times, even outright cruel. And at other times have been troublingly tone deaf. But these two don't do much speaking to one another. - Because underlying all of this. The tennis, the gossip, the stardom, is an icy layer of beef.