SPORTING LIFE

Rohit at the Australian Open: Will Serena slam door shut again?

Above, American world No. 1 Serena Williams says it is not a life changer for her if she does not win, but her resolve on court tells a different story. Left, Russian world No. 2 Maria Sharapova is normally up for a scrap but has not found a way to p
Above, American world No. 1 Serena Williams says it is not a life changer for her if she does not win, but her resolve on court tells a different story. Left, Russian world No. 2 Maria Sharapova is normally up for a scrap but has not found a way to pin down her great rival since 2004.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Above, American world No. 1 Serena Williams says it is not a life changer for her if she does not win, but her resolve on court tells a different story. Left, Russian world No. 2 Maria Sharapova is normally up for a scrap but has not found a way to p
Above, American world No. 1 Serena Williams says it is not a life changer for her if she does not win, but her resolve on court tells a different story. Left, Russian world No. 2 Maria Sharapova is normally up for a scrap but has not found a way to pin down her great rival since 2004.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Maria says she is competitive but so is her opponent who's chasing history

Time flies in sport but so, still, does Serena Williams. She's a dinosaur, she's a relic, she's a modern monument. She's a champion whose beginnings lie on microfilm. You'll have to hunt for them in archives, digging through files of the same year that Manchester United break Bayern Munich's heart, and Michael Johnson sprints to the 400m world record, and in the Briefs section of a Swiss paper there may be mention of a feisty, unknown man ranked No. 104 named Roger Federer.

It's the US Open of another century and a girl, 17, with white hair beads, is pumping her fists and unabashedly telling the world: "I have the attitude that I'm not going to lose."

Serena wins the 1999 Open, she beats Monica Seles who is now writing novels, she beats Kim Clijsters who is now bringing up her kids, she beats Lindsay Davenport who is now coaching Madison Keys. And, so, yesterday she beats Keys, too, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 in the semis. Keys, four in 1999, was inspired as a child by Venus, only to now be chastised as a teenager by sister Serena.

It's as if Serena, the No. 1, who made it clear she's not ready to retire, is captive to a voice which insists be great, stay great, more great. She doesn't know how to stop. Unless Maria Sharapova, who loudly manhandled Ekaterina Makarova 6-3, 6-2 in her semi-final, can stop her in the final.

Sharapova owns her own history with five Grand Slam titles - her only one here in 2008 - and she writes her own epics of competitiveness. Yesterday, she required only a hint of it: When Makarova had the temerity to break her once, Sharapova's refrigerated response was four consecutive winners of punishing pace and perfect geometry.

The Russian, world No. 2, is beautifully scrappy: If you hit hard, she hits harder; if you throw your best shots, better come back; if you grunt, she'll shriek you down. She likes frocks and evidently knuckle-dusters. Except she hasn't, for too long, been able to hurt Serena.

As head-to-heads go, Rafa's 23-10 owning of Roger is a civilised stat when compared to Sharapova-Serena. This Russian-American cold war is not even a contest. Sharapova hasn't beaten Serena since 2004 and has lost their last 15 encounters, including four times in the Slams. A rivalry seems too polite a definition for a rout.

Aesthetically they are similar bruisers, athletically they are divided. As Martina Navratilova told a group of reporters: "Serena is the better tennis player. She's quicker and Maria doesn't have the quickness to really bother Serena." Navratilova pointed to Serena's serve (70 aces to Sharapova's 24 so far) and the American's aggressive return on second serves. She hailed the Russian's "intensity" yet added: "You cannot be human and not have doubts after she's been beaten so many times in a row. But (an upset) can happen."

History is never everything nor is it nothing. It is weapon yet also weight, a pointer yet also an irrelevance. As Serena, asked if she mentally put aside her dominance of Sharapova, replied: "Absolutely. Maria is playing great. She's in the tournament only because she's a fighter and only because she refuses to give up. It's a new match. She has nothing to lose once again. She has only things to gain."

Sharapova, savvy in business, smart on court, is too clever not to learn. She confessed that Serena's power and aggression "always made me a bit too aggressive, maybe going for a little bit more than I had to. She's great at making players hit that shot that you don't necessarily have to go for".

No one wins when afraid and Sharapova said: "I am a competitor." But so is Serena, who swears to a "relaxed" demeanour and claims "it's not life or death for me" but plays as if to refute that very idea.

Navratilova said that "Serena really digs in". Yesterday, as Keys pushed her, Serena chose the same word, saying, "I had to dig deep mentally". But then you can almost see her do that, scraping her insides, excavating her brain, delving within to find resolve. Nothing about Serena's game, or intent, is left to the imagination.

Serena, chasing 19 Grand Slam titles, is hunting history. To be better than anyone before. Sharapova just wants to be better than Serena for once. Finals bring pressure but it is their preferred sustenance; pressure means they're in the right place; pressure is their perfume. Maybe they know, as a general called George S. Patton once said: "Pressure makes diamonds."

rohitb@sph.com.sg