On January 5, 1971, the Washington Generals beat the Harlem Globtrotters 100-99 to snap a 2,495 game losing streak against the Globetrotters. They were due.
I remembered that as I watched Maria Sharapova warming up for last night’s Australian Open final against Serena Williams. She may have lost 15 times in a row to Williams, but she was due. Surely.
Nope. It doesn’t work like that. Just because you watch Rocky 16 times in a row doesn’t mean he eventually beats Apollo Creed in the end. There is no such thing as being “due” for a win in sport – the best player on the day wins and when Serena plays Maria, it is always Serena’s day.
And that was the case last night. Williams was focused, pumped and on target from the start. She played like the player she is – the greatest of her and possibly any generation. She was the Harlem Globetrotters and Apollo Creed on a good day.
The American is now up to 19 Grand Slams and counting. She is just three titles away from equalling Steffi Graf’s record 22 Grand Slam titles in the Open Era and few would bet against her breaking it – I certainly would not.
As great a player as Sharapova is, she is no Serena. It is not that the Russian is miles behind her rival in ability, and not at all in intensity, but her game matches up so poorly against the world number one that wins are hard to come by. Her A game – thumping groundstrokes from the baseline – is good enough to beat anyone in the world, except Serena.
If she is to beat Williams, Sharapova has to have a plan B and a darn good one, but she does not slice or volley well enough to use that as a realistic tactic and she does not move well enough to be an effective retriever. She is destined to be the Washington Generals to Serena’s Globetrotters.
So, with 19 majors now under her belt, the greatest female player of the past 20 years sets her sights on more records. She wants to do better at the French (she has only won that twice) and she wants to do better at Wimbledon (she has only won that 5 times). She will reach 22 Grand Slams, and she
may do it this year – or it may be here in Melbourne in 12 months time.
Sharapova, meanwhile, is on a 30-hour flight to Krakow for a Fed Cup tie. It is minus eight in Krakow. She will have plenty of time and motivation to think of a Plan B.
Novak or Andy?
And so to tonight’s men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and I honestly cannot pick it. The heart says “Andy!” but the head says “don’t be stupid!”
It has been a remarkable tournament already for Andy Murray. To say he was unfancied coming in to this event would be putting it mildly. The way he finished last year – particularly his 6-0 6-1 loss to Roger Federer at the World Tour Finals – had many people pondering when and even if he would be a Grand Slam contender again. The Scot played well at the Hopman Cup, but the Hopman Cup is the Hopman Cup.
So here he is now in the final, for the fourth time in his career, and arguably with his best chance of winning the title. He reached a level of play in his last three matches that was equal to Andy Murray at his best, in 2012 and 2013. He bettered Grigor Dimitrov in a battle of athleticism, blunted the power of Nick Kyrgios, and controlled his temper long enough to outlast Tomas Berdych.
He has played like a champion and his words on court in defence of coach Amelie Mauresmo after beating Berdych would have made a wonderful tournament victory speech. I just hope he has not peaked, physically and emotionally, a match too soon.
And then there’s Novak Djokovic. The Serb may not have played like a champion – certainly not in his last match – but he is a champion and Rod Laver Arena is as close as he has to a home court at a Grand Slam. Four of his seven Grand Slam trophies have been won on this court and if he could pack it up and take it with him all over the world, he would.
Much like Williams and Sharapova, Djokovic and Murray play a similar game, the Serb just plays it slightly better. He is cooler on court and his groundstrokes are steadier. He is also the best returner in the game and will put pressure on Murray’s second serve – the Scot’s achilles heal.
So my head says Djokovic will win and you should always go with your head, right?