To all things there is a season. Last year was Maria Sharapova’s time – the completion of her career Grand Slam on her least favourite surface after so many injury troubles. But the wheel has turned. The defending champion made the final again, but in 2013 the story belongs to Serena Williams. Something – or rather, someone – very good has come into her life both professionally and personally in the form of her coach Patrick Mouratoglou. One year since she teamed up with him after her humiliating first round exit here, she has won Wimbledon, double Olympic gold and the US Open; and by beating Sharapova 6-4, 6-4 she extended her winning streak to 31 matches and became the oldest woman since 1958 to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. She is 31 years 247 days old, and with a 16th Grand Slam title next to her name, there is every sign she will keep stacking up the majors for some while yet.
Sharapova came into this match knowing she had not beaten Serena since her star-making championship win at Wimbledon in 2004 was followed up almost immediately by another success at that year's WTA Championships. Since then 12 matches had come and gone, including three before this final in 2013; in every match, on any surface, Williams was the winner, and in their last seven meetings Sharapova had clawed hold of just one set. The Russian’s only way of viewing this match as somehow “different” was that they had never met at Roland Garros before.
Clay is a favourite surface for neither of these women, but they deserved their top two seedings here, and were good for them in this final. Sharapova managed a great deal more against Williams than clay specialist Sara Errani could in her semi-final drubbing – no 40 winners out of 52 points this time. But it was always clear that she would have to produce something utterly extraordinary to make any inroads, and she could not do that for long enough.
The omens looked fairly horrifying when Sharapova slumped to 0-40 in her opening service game, but she was not about to hand over the match before it had started. Urging herself on audibly with every point won, she not only held but then delivered a stunning break. Even her sound on striking the ball was different – more a normal sound of exertion than her signature singsong coo. Her groundstrokes were reaching deep, as they needed to, and she was using her power where she could to create the short rallies she wanted – although it seemed impossible that could last. And indeed it was. Williams dismantled a rally in simple fashion and broke back with a smash, held to level, and scorched her returns to break again for 3-2.
Sharapova was doing enough that Williams even applauded as the Russian raced to the net to volley past her, and her service was not collapsing in the manner that many might have feared. But she needed to find a way back before the set was gone – and with both players making more mistakes than winners, loose play from Serena allowed just that, prompting much audible self-affirmation from Sharapova. Williams wasn’t having it, and next game punched a forehand past her opponent to serve for the set. Sharapova had done all she could, but the set was gone in 51 minutes.
With a veritable mountain to climb, the defending champion double-faulted for 15-40 at the start of the second. She survived five break points over 12 minutes to hang on to her serve in that game, but the die was cast. The Williams forehand was moving into overdrive and she broke for 2-1. Sharapova’s cries of encouragement to herself were fading now as she conserved her energy for the tennis itself; but nothing could stop her 13th straight defeat to the world No.1. Serena aced her first match point and her knees gave way beneath her. She had known the Grand Slam feeling 15 times previously, yet this one overwhelmed her.
When Williams last won the title here 11 years ago, it was the start of her Serena Slam; and it is worth remembering that had she not been affected by injury in Australia in January of this year, this might have been the completion of another. Of course sport is full of such what-ifs – coulda woulda shoulda. But at 31, she has found new impetus in her game and is a more extraordinary player than ever - and there is nothing conditional about that.