Continuing from where we left off in the Part I of Great and Edgy Tennis Rivalries here, here’re the next couple, which has Serena Williams making an appearance again along with Rafael Nadal.
Serena Williams v Maria Sharapova
Serena Williams was involved in not one but two rivalries over the past couple decades. One of them is well known for its unusual merging of family and tennis – the Venus v Serena case.
The other is perhaps even more bizarre, as far as rivalries go: with a head to head lead 20 to 3 for Serena, the rivalry has often sparked comments about it being anything but that. We’re talking, of course, of the famous Serena v Sharapova battle.
The story began at the Miami Open of 2004; the first ever time the players crossed path on the circuit. Serena won in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3. Hardly a surprising victory, for the then number six in the world.
The surprise came three months later, in the form of a Wimbledon title for the seventeen-year-old Russian phenomenon trained at the Nick Bollettieri Academy. We all remember how Sharapova stunned the American player, dashing through the match 6-1/6-4.
The storyline was ready for the media and audience alike to lap up: a fairly unknown player upstages the clear favorite in her first ever Grand Slam final? Headlines were writing themselves.
Even Serena genuinely congratulated her opponent for entering the Big Girls Club, perhaps as admirative as any of the Russian’s spirits and game. Great things were predicted for Maria, who, surely, was going to become one of the Greats.
However, the rivalry took a different turn than expected after the end of the 2004 season. Although Sharapova backed up her Wimbledon title with a win over Serena at the WTA Tour Championship, the American player then proceeded to win nineteen matches in a row against Sharapova. Over the course of the following 14 years, thhe only “victory” Sharapova can claim over her rival consisted of a retirement right before the match at the 2018 French Open, when Serena forfeited because of a chest injury.
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This one-way street has prompted many to dub this rivalry an un-rivalry, pointing to the fact that, since her spectacular entrance, Sharapova has not been able to occupy center stage in any way shape or form against Serena since that 2004 season.
After announcing her retirement in February of this year, Maria even became the target of twitter mockeries, and users began tweeting jabs such as:
“Say what you will about Sharapova, but there was no one better than her at losing to Serena Williams.”
Another posted a video captioned “What I’ll miss from Sharapova”.
The clip was a compilation of Serena serving aces to her Russian opponent. Highly unkind content, and one that ignores the achievements in Maria’s career (including a career Grand Slam), but nonetheless one that reflects a widely held opinion: that Sharapova existed against, and perhaps thanks to Serena.
In her autobiography, Unstoppable: My Life so far, Sharapova takes advantage of having been the-one-to-beat Serena in that Wimbledon final (a feat she has never repeated), and speculates on her opponent’s reaction
“I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her against all odds at Wimbledon.”
Others suspect that Serena took the opportunity to strengthen her game even more, determined to never lose again – which she didn’t. The more plausible theory is that Serena resented Sharapova’s brand being so deeply associated with her one-time loss.
This rivalry hasn’t relied on numbers; looking at the results, there is no question Serena is the best. But this story is one for the books. Even though Serena made sure never to lose again to Sharapova, the two have remained in the limelight in relation to one another, since that one fateful day, in July 2004; a proof, if anything, that it only takes one match to make a great rivalry come alive.
Nick Kyrgios v Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal is one of the Big Three, the all-time best clay-court tennis player the world has ever seen, and to top it all off, he’s got a way of being absolutely respectful, nice, modest – a result of his education, Uncle Toni having told him, win after win after win, ‘You’re not special because you can hit a ball with a racket.’
Rafa has never smashed one in his life, and he has never thrown a tantrum on a tennis court. Tennis broadcaster Mary Carillo went as far as to comment on Rafa’s greatest strength:
“The one body part that will never fail him is his great beating heart.”
On the other side of the net, at the 2019 Wimbledon tournament, was Nick Kyrgios, the Australian bad boy. In the third set of their second-round match, after Nadal had sprinted to the net, Kyrgios gathered his strengths, aimed straight at his opponent’s chest, and fired a heavy forehand.
In the press conference following the match (which he lost in four sets), Kyrgios admitted to the charge and refused to apologize. His exact words were :
“I don’t care. Why would I apologize? I mean, the dude has got how many slams, how much money in the bank account? I think he can take a ball to the chest, I’m not gonna apologize to him, at all.”
This wasn’t the first time Kyrgios was being defiant towards what some might call his elders. The recurring word popping up in every conversation about these incidents is respect, and especially, lack thereof.
It’s not about talent – Nick has plenty. He has beaten all of the Big Three one equally big stages of the tennis world. Nadal is the first one to admit he has all the skill he needs to become a Grand Slam winner. But it isn’t enough.
“He could win Grand Slams and fight the top positions of the ranking, but there is a reason why he is where he is. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, not at all. I think he’s a good guy. But what he lacks is a little respect for the public, for his rival, and also for himself. I think he should improve that.”
Much like Borg and McEnroe, Nadal and Kyrgios have, it seems, opposite approaches to the game. Nadal is hard-working, perfectionist attentive to detail and highly resilient. Kyrgios is unruly, facetious, daredevil, all-round more of a showman than anything else, but also – alas – less of a Slam Champion.
The clash of styles is always a pure joy to behold: during the infamous Wimbledon match, Kyrgios also did an underarm serve – it’s this sort of thing that makes him who he is, which is: a player that polarizes the crowds. However, it has yet to win him a Major title.
The rivalry really began at the 2014 Wimbledon, when a nineteen-year-old Aussie sporting diamond earrings and a zig-zag pattern in his hair stunned the Spaniard – and the rest of the world, by winning the third-round match in four sets.
People were excited.
This was a time when everyone was looking left and right for the next Big Thing – someone, for instance, who could upset Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. According to everyone present that day, Kyrgios seemed to be just that.
Since then, the Australian has definitely improved both his game and temperament on court, but his relationship to Nadal remains one of the question marks of his career: at times, his imitation of Nadal’s notoriously long service routine evidences disrespect. At others, he seems to be simply in awe of a career he struggles to make for himself. During the confinement, he just recently tweeted out:
“Rafa let’s do Instagram Live together. I am down with it. Let’s do it.”
To this, the Spaniard responded: “I don’t mind […] but there’s a generational gap and he might have more fun with someone closer to his age and style.”
Reading between the lines, it seems clear that Nadal simply doesn’t have much to say to Kyrgios.
Talented as he may be, he believes that without drastic adjustments both on and off the courts, Nick will not fulfill his potential. When asked what that might look like, if Kyrgios committed to the game as much as him, Nadal simply said “If, if, if … it doesn’t exist.”
Read on for Part III of the Great and Edgy Rivalries here.