Serena v Maria: the latest chapter

 - Ian Chadband

Williams and Sharapova go head-to-head for the 22nd time; the American leads the series 19-2.

Serena Williams Maria Sharapova 3e tour Roland-Garros 3rd round.

In the annals of all sport, there has never been a rivalry quite like that between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, the 22nd chapter of which we will be privileged to see unfold at Roland-Garros on Monday.

A great rivalry is supposed to take in vast, dramatic swings in form and fortunes, fluctuating spells where one opponent is in the ascendancy and then in the doldrums. Yet above all, it should offer the idea that the ongoing battle for supremacy between the adversaries is never, ever settled.

Only in that last category could we honestly say that Williams-Sharapova fits this bill. Williams has hammered Sharapova so often, so comfortably and over so many years that, in sporting terms, it hardly constitutes a rivalry at all. Williams 19 wins Sharapova two. Williams 39 sets (the last 16 in a row), Sharapova seven.

That’s not a rivalry. It’s a monopoly.

Yet in the case of these two, it does not make one iota of difference. This is Serena v Maria, the Superhero v the Ice Queen, the Compton warrior v the Siberian tiger. It’s the world's two most famous sportswomen screaming out their enmity in a gladiatorial arena, it’s Cold War tennis played at boiling point. And it always means something.

Yet here’s the odd thing. Though you have to go back 14 years to find when Sharapova last won - twice in a row, actually - it’s that 2004 Wimbledon final where the touch paper was first lit. The young Russian teenage phenomenon blew the double champion away 6-1 6-4 and then told a crestfallen Williams sweetly at the presentation: “I have to take this trophy from you for one year … I'm sorry.”

It’s the one clash everyone remembers, and the one the pair of them are still talking about.

Even this week. For in her autobiography, Sharapova had written: “I think she hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry (afterward in the locker room). She's never forgiven me for it.” And it’s also, she believes, why Serena has been inspired to take such ruthless retribution ever since.

“I think the book was 100 per cent hearsay, which was a little bit disappointing," Williams frostily replied to that suggestion this week while also adding she had no negative feelings towards Sharapova.

Ah, after all these years, those sniping off-the-court rallies, for so long even more competitive than the tennis, are still being played out beautifully.

For this is a rivalry built perhaps less on tennis and more on the sheer weight of their fame and their luminous celebrity. Not that we should complain. It feels great for tennis that these seemingly indestructible superstars are back again at 31 and 36 respectively, impossibly both reinvented - Sharapova battling back to the top after her doping ban and Williams repackaged as a cat-suited ‘Supermom' - and more feted than ever.

And here’s the thing. For all of Williams’ dominance, you just dare not count out Sharapova. “She's probably a favourite in this match, for sure," said Williams with such a smile that you knew she didn’t believe a word of what she was saying.

Yet she knows enough to understand that Sharapova is a study in sheer indomitability. She will never give up, never stop trying nor believing.

“Numbers don’t lie … but you know, despite the record that I have against her, I always look forward to coming out on the court and competing against the best player,” Sharapova said.

And on Court Philippe-Chatrier, we can only look forward to seeing one more shuddering, roaring collision of their mighty egos, wills and talent.