MELBOURNE: Serena Williams gave a gallant Maria Sharapova another serving of grand slam heartbreak to win the Australian Open on Saturday and bolster her claims to be the all-time greatest player with her 19th major title.
Though sickly, wheezing and battling coughing fits, Williams’s serve was in the rudest of health and her athleticism astonishing as she closed out a nerve-shredding clash 6-3 7-6(5) under the lights of Rod Laver Arena.
In sealing her sixth title at Melbourne Park, Williams surpassed Martina Navratilova, the woman who passed her the trophy, and Chris Evert in grand slam title wins, while drawing level with fellow American Helen Wills Moody, third in the all-time list.
At 33, the oldest Australian Open winner in the professional era, Williams left few in doubt that the pursuit of Steffi Graf’s 22 titles and Margaret Court’s 24 will continue.
“Gosh, where do I start? I have to thank God for this,” Williams gushed at the trophy ceremony.
“I was down and out, and he helped me today, and I just said prayers and it just — not to win but to be strong and to be healthy and in the end I was able to come through.
“I also have to congratulate Maria, who played a wonderful, wonderful match tonight. She really, really pushed me tonight, and she played so well. Gave us a great final for not only for you guys but for women’s tennis.”
Fittingly, she sealed the title with an ace, her 18th, on the third match point, and after shaking hands with her opponent, bounded around the court like a woman possessed, squealing in delight.
Sharapova sat quietly in her chair, nursing the pain of a 16th straight defeat by Williams and a third loss in grand slam finals to the American champion.
“I’ve got to congratulate Serena on creating history and on playing some of her best tennis. It’s really an honor playing against her,” Sharapova, who lost the 2007 final to Williams and the title-decider at the 2013 French Open, said.
“I haven’t beaten her in a really long time, but I love every time that I step on the court to play against her because she’s been the best and, as a tennis player, you wanna play against the best.”
Steamrolled in the opening set, five-times grand slam champion Sharapova was magnificent as she dragged herself off the canvas and staved off defeat twice on match points with brilliant down-the-line winners.
The “un-rivalry” with Williams continues, however, her last win over the American coming when she was a 17-year-old sensation still finding her feet on tour.
She admitted she had been on borrowed time after suffering a huge scare to countrywoman Alexandra Panova in the second round, and appeared tense before her center court entrance.
Shuffling from side to side on the spot, Williams stood behind her, stock-still and brooding.
There was little warmth as the pair posed for the pre-game pictures on court and Williams was all over Sharapova’s serve from the first point, thumping a backhand return down the line that the Russian could only net.
Second serves were despatched with contempt.
A break point was almost inevitable and Sharapova, already under pressure, double-faulted to concede serve.
At 30-30 with Williams leading 3-2, rain fell, forcing a break and the American bashed a ball away in disgust before marching to the exit and pacing a tunnel under Rod Laver Arena.
She returned, coughing into a towel but doubled back immediately, ducking off court again to deal with a coughing fit as a non-plussed Sharapova limbered up.
Returning again, she smashed an ace and a forehand winner down the line to close out the game and though losing focus to drop serve in the next, Williams responded by breaking Sharapova to love to take out the set, roaring a blood-curdling “come on!”
Having tallied a paltry three winners to her opponent’s 11 for the set, the signs were bad for Sharapova, but she rose to pries out a break point at 3-3.
An unreturnable serve down the middle slammed the door on the chance and Williams, demoralizingly, rocketed her 13th ace and third of the game to hold firm.
Bellowing with emotion, Williams rolled on and pounced as Sharapova served to stay in the match at 5-4, creating a match point that the nerveless Russian slapped away with a searing forehand down the line.
She repeated the trick at 6-4 in the tiebreak, but as ever, Williams’s serve had the final say, the booming ace announcing the champion like the first volley of a 21-gun salute.
More grand slam champions will be decided later on Saturday when Italian pair Simone Bolelli and Fabio Fognini take on French duo Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut.
On Sunday, top seed Novak Djokovic will bid for an eighth grand slam title when he faces sixth seed Andy Murray in the men’s singles final. -Reuters