Serena Williams had waited the best part of nine months to respond in public to the comments about her in Maria Sharapova’s autobiography and, as usual, the 23-times Grand Slam singles champion’s timing was impeccable. Forty-eight hours before their meeting here in the fourth round of the French Open, Williams made it clear that she had not thought much of Sharapova’s locker-room revelations.
Dismissing the parts of the book that she had read as “100 per cent hearsay”, Williams was particularly unimpressed by Sharapova’s description of her after her defeat by the Russian in the 2004 Wimbledon final.
In “Unstoppable: My Life So Far”, which was published last year, Sharapova wrote that Williams had sobbed long and hard in the locker room after losing to the then 17-year-old on Centre Court.
“Guttural sobs, the sort that make you heave for air, the sort that scares you,” Sharapova wrote. “It went on and on. I got out as quickly as I could, but she knew I was there. People often wonder why I have had so much trouble beating Serena; she’s owned me in the past 10 years. My record against her is 2-19.
“In analysing this, people talk about Serena’s strength, her serve and confidence, how her particular game matches up to my particular game, and, sure there is truth to all of that; but, to me, the real answer was there, in this locker room, where I was changing and she was bawling. I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”
She added: “Not long after the tournament, I heard Serena told a friend – who then told me – ‘I will never lose to that little bitch again’.”
Williams, responding to questions about Sharapova after both women had won their third-round matches here, said it would have been “more shocking if I wasn’t in tears” given that it had been the Wimbledon final. She added: “I think what happens [in the locker room] should definitely maybe stay there and not necessarily talk about it in a not-so-positive way in a book.”
The American, who beat the world No 11, Julia Goerges, to secure her fourth-round meeting here with Sharapova, said she had been surprised to figure so prominently in the Russian’s book. “I didn’t expect to be reading a book about me, that wasn’t necessarily true,” she said.
Williams insisted she did not have any “negative feelings” towards Sharapova. “Especially having a daughter, I feel like negativity is taught,” she said. “I feel like women, especially, should bring each other up.
“A lot of people always assume that I feel a different way and it’s not true. If anything, I feel like we should encourage each other, and the success of one female should be the inspiration to another, and I have said that a thousand times. So for me, I always get inspired by other women that are doing well.”
Williams said that she went into matches against Sharapova with the same attitude she had against any other player. “I go extremely hard,” she said. “I play everyone so hard because they play me really hard and I always have to be ready for it.”
Insisting that Sharapova was “probably a favourite” to win their meeting here, Williams pointed out that both women were making comebacks – the American after having a baby and the Russian after serving a 15-month drugs ban – but added: “She’s been playing for over a year now. I just started. So I’m just really trying to get my bearings and trying to feel out where I am and see where I can go.
“I think this will be another test. I think this is just one of her best surfaces, and she always does really, really well here. So this would be a good opportunity for me kind of to see where I am and just hopefully continue to go forward.”
Sharapova won two of her first three matches against Williams, but since beating her in the year-ending tour finals in 2004 she has lost to the American 18 times in a row.
Their most recent meeting was two and a half years ago at the Australian Open. It turned out to be the last match Sharapova would play for 15 months after she was subsequently banned for her positive drugs test.
“I think there are a lot of things in Serena’s game that she’s done much better than I have,” Sharapova said here after her third-round victory over the world No 6, Karolina Pliskova. “Numbers don’t lie.”
Sharapova added: “I think any time you play against Serena you know what you’re up against. You know the challenge that is upon you. Despite the record that I have against her, I always look forward to coming out on the court and competing against the best player. I will look forward to doing that.”
While Williams has had a very clear edge on the court over the years, Sharapova has led the way commercially off it. It was not until 2016, following Sharapova’s positive test for a banned drug, that Williams ended the Russian’s 11-year reign as the world’s highest-paid female athlete.
Five years ago the rivalry between the two women apparently moved to their love lives after Sharapova started going out with Grigor Dimitrov, who was said to have had a previous relationship with Williams. In a magazine interview Williams said of an unnamed top-five player: “If she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”
Amid reports that Williams had been dating her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, Sharapova gave a cutting response: “If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids.”
Despite everything, Sharapova insisted in her autobiography that “some day, when all this is in our past, maybe we’ll become friends”. She added: “I think, to some extent, we have driven each other. Maybe that’s better than being friends. Maybe that’s what it takes to fire up the proper fury.”