HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Williams & Sharapova: One win does not a rivalry make
The draw of the US Open saw Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova play each other front and centre on Arthur Ashe stadium on the opening night. They have faced each other 22 times. None of those matches have taken place at the US Open. Of those 22 times, Serena has beaten Sharapova 20 times. Nineteen of those wins were in a row. That’s 19 consecutive wins. Still, game night was hyped up, most of all by the old “rivalry” narrative.
But does a 20-2 record (and it is a record) a rivalry make? Short answer, no. More definitively, and I’ll start with the boring dictionary definition, a rivalry is competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field. The key word in that definition is the word “superiority”. Plainly put: You cannot compete for superiority when you are not on the same level.
That would be like pegging a house cat, who definitely has the arrogance of a cheetah, against said cheetah, and labelling it a rivalry. The superiority will, and always falls, in favour of the cheetah. Simple as. Yet, here we are. The tabby vs tiger, in what is often called “one of the greatest and longest standing rivalries in tennis”.
Let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s go beyond simplified dictionary definitions and shovel through the psychology of it all. Rivalries by their very nature are tainted with negative connotations. When we think of them, we think of aggression, nemesis, even hatred. But having a rival is actually a good thing. It peaks a competitor’s performance. New York University scientist Gavin J. Kilduff proved this is his study. The results found that people reported higher performance when competing against rivals, and when he tested it with long-distance runners, the results revealed that rivalries improved race times.
But not every competitor does a rival make. Every competitor you play in every sport, or game, cannot fall into this category. The rivalry solely occurs between two people who already know each other and past interactions in the history of the head to heads are taken into account. The psychological stakes are raised. The win is not enough. To have a tight competition and sway between wins and try to win again is essential in defining a rivalry - and the competition is fierce.
The win is more important than the prize. The win is the point, so to speak. And the point isn’t made when the statistic reveal that you have only managed to make this point 2 out of 22 times. Well, the rivalry title tends to fall apart and one competitor falls short of being an equal or comparative competitor and just becomes one of the seven steps to the Grand Slam title – equal to all others and not special at all.
The media has concocted this narrative because one sunny strawberries and cream day at Wimbledon 2004, Sharapova faced Williams in the final and won. To this day, the media still uses that single image to illustrate the news. There are 20 pictures of Williams holding the winner’s trophy, but the symbolism of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed player wins the “main image” stakes, every time. Because that’s how it is right? Blonde hair and blue eyed woman are not supposed to lose. They’re not supposed to be portrayed as “lesser than”.
But regardless of what headlines say, the truth lies on the court. The match said everything it needed to say. Williams, often portrayed as aggressive and just “not a nice person”, even applauded a passing shot by Sharapova – as she does with many of her opponents. Sharapova showed no such grace, and while there was no openly expressed enmity in the post-match presser from either of the players, Williams succinctly sealed the coffin of the dead rivalry narrative by stating: “Her ball always lands in my strike zone. I don’t know. It’s perfect for me”.
Legitimate rivals in history include Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Harry Potter and Voldemort. Each of them of equal talent, different but powerful skill and a record of results, but with Williams and Sharapova this simply isn’t the case. There is one strike zone. One ultimate winner. And one superior. And it is not Sharapova.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.