You first won against Serena Williams when you were just 17, at Wimbledon where you thrashed the American in straight sets, 6-1, 6-4, for your first Grand Slam title.
And then you lost 18 straight times against her, the latest beating taking place at the 2016 Australian Open, not the finals (where the Sharapova-Williams battles were expected to be played) but only the quarterfinals, no thanks to the two of you having been on the same side of the draw.
What had happened in the intervening years, Maria?
Well, against other still top-ranked and up and coming players—Ivanovic, Vinci, Kvitova, Radwanska, Halep, Bouchard, Muguruza and a few others—you have fared well, at Grand Slams and Tier 1 WTA tournaments—at Indian Wells, Rome, Stuttgart, Tokyo, Madrid, Melbourne, Roland Garros, London, Flushing Meadows—from 2005 to 2015.
Well, you had shoulder injuries that were medically taken care of, but these ailments alone, with all due respect, were not the reason why you had performed dismally against Serena (I would not cross the line here and over-analyze your psychological state of mind while playing your nemesis).
Allow me—just a huge tennis fan, not a tennis player—to give you some “pointers” on how you could possibly get the monkey off your shoulder placed there by Serena:
• Never let her drag you in a power game. If you do, you’re dead, partly because Serena would just smash and smack the ball back to you before you could even say “Come on.”
• If you engage her in a baseline game, keep the rallies long. Short ones suit Serena’s game. A 20-stroke exchange, for example, would unsettle her.
• Aim for aces. If you don’t and she gets her racquet on the ball with your weak first serve, then you’re done. Go for broke on your second serve, otherwise Serena would just attack it mercilessly and you can head to the locker room.
• Try drop shots against her but don’t overdo it. You may have noticed that Serena usually stays near or on the baseline. Try one such shot or two against her in a set and she would have a hard time to reach for the ball. Besides, a drop shot, in my opinion, destroys the flow of a match although it is hard to execute successfully.
• Mix up your shots to make her leave her comfort zone. Give her a forehand much too often and she just whacks back the ball back to you with such power (her claim to fame and longevity). Give her backhands, try groundstrokes against her so that she would not be able to easily scoop the ball and send it over the net (back to you, of course). The volley would not work against Serena because she can think on her feet.
• Go for the corners to make her run and run her from side to side (think Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon a few years ago when Marion Bartoli emerged champion or Angelique Kerber in the just concluded Australian Open where she toppled Serena in the championship match).
• Try short balls because with long ones, you would just give her all the time in the world to get to them very easily.
• Nice girls finish last. Try a little gamesmanship against Serena. You may have been aware, for another example, that she supposedly was hurting at the knees at the start of this year’s Australian Open. And then, after she beat you, she said she had a bout with food poisoning. On second thought, forget this suggestion. You’re much too nice to be able to pull it off anyway.
Good luck in Game No. 20!