Coming into the Miami final, Maria Sharapova had been on a career best 11 match winning streak and had not dropped a set since losing to Serena in Doha.  On the other side of the spectrum, Maria had also been on a 10 match losing streak to Serena and had not won a set off the American since way back in 2008 in Charleston. 

With all of this said, something had to give.  Either Sharapova’s set streak was going to end or she was going to get grasp that elusive set from Serena.  It proved to be the latter as Sharapova took the first set 6-4 after breaking Serena for the second time in the first set at 4-4.

Serena seemed to have shifted the tide of the match as she opened up the second set with a rapid hold and a break of Sharapova’s serve.   Sharapova’s mental resiliency was in full force as she quickly rebounded to grab the break right back and held quickly to even the score at 2-2.   In the following game, Sharapova, as she did in the first set, broke Serena at 2-2.  With these consecutive breaks of Serena, the Russian appeared to be in the driver’s seat.  Unfortunately for the Sharapova, she may have actually been in the driver’s seat but it was in a car that was heading straight towards a brick wall.   Mirroring the course of events in the second set, Sharapova was broken straight back once again as Serena evened the proceedings at 3-3.    

Shockingly enough, the break of serve that nudged Sharapova ahead in the second set would be the last game she won in the entire match as Serena went on to win the second set 6-3 and the final set 6-0.  Up 4-3 in the second set, Serena was gifted a break by Sharapova who double faulted to set up break point and dumped a routine forehand into the net allowing Serena to take a 5-3 lead.   Sharapova had her chances to get back on serve but Serena rallied from 0-30 to claim the set 6-3.

Serena’s opening shot of the third set, a whizzing down the line forehand winner, was a sign of things to come as she breezed through the final set unleashing the full potential of her deadly repertoire leaving the Russian helpless and hopeless.  The dagger for Sharapova came when she broke herself down 0-2 by double faulting the final two points of the game away.     

Serena closed the match out on her own serve and was put through zero strain in doing so.  This marks Serena’s sixth title in Miami and her 48th title overall.   

What will it take for Sharapova to beat Serena?

Body Serve

In her opening service game, Sharapova hit three body serves all of which translated into three missed returns from Serena.  The body serve is an effective play because it doesn’t allow Serena to hit from a stabilized position.  The body serve forces Serena to move around the ball and with the pace Sharapova has behind her serve, it usually prevents from Serena from make a clean strike through the ball even if she is able to make an adjustment.  In addition, by going to the body, Sharapova prevents Serena from establishing straightforward, linear momentum into the ball limiting the effectiveness of Serena’s return even if she is able to put a clean strike on the ball.

Return of Serve- Go at Serena

The return of serve in the first set and a half was what I really felt put Sharapova ahead even though she was serving pretty fantastically herself.  Sharapova, particularly off the backhand side, was stepping in, moving her weight forward and taking big cuts at the ball really holding Serena accountable especially off the second serve.   Sharapova’s penchant for aggression and power goes without saying but what really impressed me was her shot selection.  Common sense would say spread Serena out wide on the return of serve but the smart play is actually going up the middle at Serena which is where Sharapova went a majority of the time.  By going up the middle, Sharapova is giving herself margin by hitting into a large part of the court and decreasing the angles Serena can create if she were pushed away from the middle of the court.  

Go Down the Line

Going down the line, whether off the forehand or backhand side, is always a riskier shot than playing cross court or up the middle.  But Maria Sharapova is no stranger to playing this brand of tennis and against Serena, it is a must.   As a result, Sharapova not only needs to be the aggressor in the majority of points against Serena, but she needs to look to keep Serena from dictating from the center of the court.  Going down the line and spreading Serena towards the alleys is a smart play because it opens up the court and puts Williams in an increasingly strained position.  I felt Sharapova went down the line effectively today but feel she could utilize this tactic even more the next time these two play.

Minimize time on court and capitalize on your chances

I believe if Sharapova is to beat Serena Williams, she will have to do so in straight sets.  The longer she lets Serena hang around, the higher the chance Serena is going to find her range.   Sharapova was up a break in the first set and was broken immediately back and was up a break in the second set and was broken immediately back.  If she wants to take down Serena, these types of lapses have to be nonexistent.   While Sharapova obviously could beat Serena in three, I think her best chance is to take it to Serena and give her as little room as possible to recuperate. 

Sharapova hasn’t been able to win a set off Serena in almost 5 years and hasn’t beaten her in a match in almost 10 years, so to say that she’ll have her work cut out for her in the future is a massive understatement.

I do believe that a Sharapova victory over isn’t an impossibility but it will in all probability require the intersection of a perfected Sharapova strategy and flawless execution of such a strategy.