Serena Williams is way better than Maria Sharapova—why do we keep calling them rivals?

Williams has demonstrated herself to be the superior athlete time and time again. Why do we continue to demand proof?
Williams has demonstrated herself to be the superior athlete time and time again. Why do we continue to demand proof?
Image: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
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This article has been corrected.

The act of rivaling is to compete for superiority in a given field. As such, it suggests some comparability of skill between the parties, or rivals. When it comes to US tennis star Serena Williams and Russian Maria Sharapova, no such rivalry exists—no matter how many times their relationship is described as such in the press.

The run-up to the pair’s face-off July 9 at Wimbledon was no exception, both in the rivalry hype or the outcome: surprise, surprise, Williams emerged the victor, again.

Perhaps it all rises from that fateful match in 2004, when then-17-year-old Sharapova shocked the world by beating Williams in the final at Wimbledon. It was an undeniably spectacular performance by the young Sharapova. But it was also 11 years ago. Williams’s record of performance since has been undeniably superior.

In just over a decade, Serena has won 16 out 17 matches against her younger opponent—five of them Grand Slams. In a Wimbledon rematch in 2010 Williams carried the match easily: 7-6, 6-4. They’ve met 12 times between 2010 and now, and in those years, Sharapova has only won a single set—including during the Olympics final at Wimbledon in 2012, in which Williams trounced her once more (6-0, 6-1).

If we’re to abide by the traditional definitions of “sports rivalry,” Willliams vs. Sharapova simply doesn’t qualify: there is no comparability of skill nor is there is any mythic, historiographic mutual dislike. (Think the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees before the Curse of the Bambino was broken.)

Williams and Sharapova have no beef; though the press certainly does its best to stoke one. Indeed, publicly they come off as practically friendly. “I love playing Maria,” Williams has said. “I think she brings out the best in me. I think I bring out the best in her.”

So why is Williams’s phenomenal skill so frequently framed within the context of a so-called rivalry with Sharapova? Could it possibly be that America, and perhaps the world, is uncomfortable with the notion of an African American woman being the nonpareil champion of a traditionally white sport? It it certainly true that every Williams victory is inevitably accompanied by a smorgasbord of racist/sexist commentary. Or perhaps it is simply because the sports press loves the dramatic storyline of a long-standing rivalry to the more boring, if accurate, narrative that Williams is simply the best female tennis player of her generation.

Either way, it’s incredibly frustrating to anyone who truly appreciates Williams’s primacy on the court. She has repeatedly demonstrated her prowess, both at home and abroad; and will surely be considered one of the great American athletes of our time as well. Yet, despite victory after victory after victory, the world never ceases to demand that she further prove herself. Meanwhile, Sharapova bathes in the easy glow of international accolade stemming from a one-off win 11 years ago.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Sharapova’s last Wimbledon victory over Williams was 12 years ago. It was 11.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Williams beat Sharapova in the final of the 2012 Olympics with a score of 6-3, 7-6. It was actually 6-0, 6-1.