To commemorate Serena Williams’ 40th birthday on September 26, we’re looking back at four matches that define the power, precision and unshakeable persistence that took her to an Open Era record of 23 Grand Slam titles and 319 weeks atop the WTA rankings.
Next up, her rivalry-defining comeback over Maria Sharapova at the 2005 Australian Open.
When discussing the modern women’s game, two rivalries have defined the new millennium; in both, Serena Williams is the common denominator. First, there is Serena and Venus, a duo inexorably linked by blood and what they share in common.
Then there is Serena and Maria—that is, Maria Sharapova. They are, in their own way, bonded: by circumstance, and how they differ.
Serena had already won six major titles by the end of 2003, and enjoyed numerous rivalries early in her career. Her initial opposition were either established veterans like Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, or colleagues of her own up-and-coming cohort like Martina Hingis, Justine Henin and her own sister. Sharapova was the first teen phenom to upset the order established by Serena and Venus at the turn of the century.
Though her success and longevity often elevated Sharapova to the status of Serena’s closest competitor, she was ultimately a foil in the face of an athlete who played her own game that much better.
While the 20-2 head-to-head tells us how this story played out, there was a time when the Serena-Maria rivalry was at its most explosive, and it unquestionably turned on transformative clash at the start of the 2005 season.
Sharapova had won their last two encounters, most famously at Wimbledon, where she ended Serena’s 20-match winning streak at the All England Club to become a household name. Williams claimed just one major since sweeping to the “Serena” Slam in 2003, but had rounded into form in Melbourne with impressive wins over Nadia Petrova in the fourth round, and world No. 2 Amélie Mauresmo in the quarterfinals.
But Sharapova posed a different challenge, and entered this match with momentum. She won the first set with ease, 6-2.
On the brink of defeat in the second set at 4-5, Serena pulled off a patented comeback to reel off the next three games and level the match. Sharapova served for the match again in the decider, and would force Williams to save three match points—two with outright winners.
Down break points at 6-all Serena would again lean into legendary form and at last surge to victory, 2-6, 7-5, 8-6, and set aside any doubts about her determination to be the best in the world.
“This is what I love to do,” she explained after the match. “I love nothing more than walking out there, hearing my name being announced, ‘Serena Williams,’ the crowd goes wild. I love that feeling. I love being able to perform and being able to play a sport that’s so fun, you can travel the world. I think it’s a great, great thing for me. I wouldn’t give it up right now for anything.”
Serena managed a similar comeback in the final with Davenport—she lost the first set 6-2, but won the final nine games—to end her 18-month major drought and move within one Roland Garros of a double Career Grand Slam.