It's been ten years. Ten years since Maria Sharapova has beaten Serena Williams. Ten years since Sharapova won the WTA Finals. And ten years since Sharapova made her WTA Championships debut.
The 2004 WTA Championships were played at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. Sharapova, 17, was finishing off her breakout season in which she won four titles, the most notable was her maiden Slam at Wimbledon. There were reasons to think we were being introduced to a grass court phenom that year. After making the quarterfinals of the French Open, she went 12-0 on grass and won the title in Birmingham before lifting the Venus Rosewater dish at the All England Club. She came into her first WTA Finals on a roll, having won back-to-back titles in Seoul and Tokyo and then making the final in Zurich to boost her ranking to No. 6 in the final week of the season.
Sharapova was seeded sixth ahead of seventh-seeded Serena. It had been a mediocre season for Serena, who had taken eight months away from the game after undergoing knee surgery in 2003 and didn't return to the tour until March of 2004. She won just two titles, in Miami and Beijing, and lost in two big finals that seemed to define her season. The first was against Sharapova at Wimbledon, where the Russian rolled to a 6-1, 6-4 win. In her next tournament that summer Serena made the final in Los Angeles only to lose to Lindsay Davenport 6-1, 6-3. Ranked as low as No. 16 that season, Serena climbed her way back up the rankings in the fall to qualify for the WTA Championships for the third time in her career.
Sharapova was drawn into the Black Group along with Amelie Mauresmo, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva. Serena was drawn into the Red Group with top seed Lindsay Davenport, Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva. Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati served as the two alternates, and Australian Open champion Justine Henin had to pull out of the season-ending tournament with a virus. But the Russian dominance of the tournament was no surprise: Sharapova (Wimbledon), Myskina (French Open) and Kuznetsova (U.S. Open) all won their first majors that season.
Sharapova went 2-1 in the group, beat her fellow Russians and qualified for the semifinals along with Mauresmo, who went 3-0. Serena followed a similar path and earned wins over both Russians in her group before dropping her final round robin match to Davenport in a hard-fought 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 win. Sharapova booked her spot into her first final with a three set win over Myskina, in a match that would kick off a whole war of words between the Russians. It was Sharapova's first win over Myskina and Myskina complained afterwards about Sharapova's father, Yuri, coaching her from the stands. She then threatened to boycott Fed Cup if Sharapova -- who she said was more American than Russian -- joined the team. "If she joins our team next season, you won't see me there for sure," Myskina said. "I do not want to be on a team with people who do not respect me."
Serena's semifinal match had more on-court drama than off-court drama. She was made to battle hard once again and beat Mauresmo 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4. The win snapped Mauresmo's 11-match win streak and ended her bid to finish the year at No. 1, an honor that would remain with Davenport. And so, the Wimbledon rematch was on.
Was it hard for Serena to put the memory of that Wimbledon beat down behind her? Well...yes. "I don't believe I played the Wimbledon final," Serena said at the time. "I don't know who it was but that was someone else. I wasn't at Wimbledon this year."
Serena was battle-tested going into the final against Sharapova, but she was also battle-worn. She felt some pain in her abdomen in the first set but was able to shake it off to take it 6-4. By the middle of the second set she began to struggle with the injury and had to take a medical timeout towards the end of the set. Sharapova took it easily at 6-2, and that's where the fun began.
The injury had an obvious effect on Serena. She was forced to roll in her serves and struggled to swing through and get pace on some of her shots. Like a wounded animal, she began to hit out on the ball and the strategy worked. She earned a 4-0 lead quickly in the third set and looked on her way to her second WTA Finals crown. "After she got the medical treatment, I could tell that she had problems serving, but on the groundstrokes she was just teeing off on everything," Sharapova said after the match. "Beside her serve, she didn't look injured once she was playing, so she was actually being really tough. I couldn't capitalize on the weak serves that she hit."
But the consistent pain began to play on Serena's mind. She had just dealt with a lengthy injury break and her sister Venus was sidelined the year before with an abdominal injury. "I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm not going to be out six months. I do not want this,'" Serena said. "I was thinking, 'Just go easy.' I wasn't going to go for any big serves. It's not worth it with the new year coming around the corner. I was just really trying to chill."
Sharapova finally began to take advantage of Serena's puffball serves, which were clocking in around 70 mph. Sharapova won the next six games behind some powerful pinpoint hitting and a little bit of help from Serena, who served three double-faults in one game to help Sharapova get back to 4-4. On match point, Sharapova pounded a 64 mph serve for a winner to capture her fifth title of the season and beat Serena 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.