In the second part of our two-part series on the finest Miami finals, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, looks back at the finest Women’s finals in Florida.
The Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, are both residents of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, choosing to live near to each other as they maintain the close sisterly bond that they have enjoyed throughout their lives. In fact, given the huge wealth they have both accrued in more than two decades on the WTA Tour, it is likely that they have considerable property interests in The Sunshine State. However, the one piece of Florida real estate that they can be said to “own” most comprehensively is the Miami Open, having won it a staggering 11 times (Serena eight times and Venus three times) between them.
As a result, it would have been possible to compile a list of the Five Finest Miami Open Women’s Finals exclusively featuring triumphs by the Williams sisters. As it is, they feature in four of the five. Here they are, in reverse chronological order (i.e. the most recent first).
- 2013: Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova 4–6 6–3 6–0
The supposed “rivalry” between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova was actually one of the most one-sided sporting rivalries ever, with Williams winning a remarkable 20 of their 22 matches. Indeed, after beating Williams twice in 2004, first in the Wimbledon final and then again in the WTA Championships at the end of the year, Sharapova never beat her again, until she finally retired from tennis in February 2020, just a month before the global coronavirus pandemic brought all professional tennis to a shuddering halt for nearly four months.
In the later years of their supposed “rivalry”, one of the best matches that Sharapova played against Williams was in the 2013 Miami Open final, when she actually won the first set and was competitive in the second before being bagelled in the third. Indeed, that first set in Florida would prove to be the very last set that Sharapova ever won against Williams, as she lost her next nine matches against the American in straight sets.
That statistic alone shows why the Sharapova-Williams rivalry was always one that existed more in the minds of the media and tennis fans than it ever did on court and could never really be compared to the greatest rivalries in the history of women’s tennis, such as Court-Goolagong, Navratilova-Evert or Graf-Seles.
- 2008: Serena Williams beats Jelena Janković 6–1 5–7 6–3
At almost exactly the same time that Maria Sharapova was retiring from tennis, Jelena Janković was apparently considering a return to the sport. At the start of 2020, she had announced on Instagram that she was considering partnering her compatriot, Novak Djokovic, in an exhibition doubles match in Belgrade. However, the coronavirus pandemic put paid to that idea, as it did so many things, and more than a year on it looks increasingly unlikely that Janković will ever play tennis professionally or competitively again.
If that does prove to be the case, then Janković can still look back on an extremely impressive career, having briefly reached World No.1 in August 2008. That followed the loss of her only Major Singles final, the 2008 US Open, to Serena Williams, and it was Williams who also defeated her in the Miami Open final earlier that year. Typically, Williams steamrollered Janković in the first set, winning it 6-1, but the Serb fought back supremely well to take the second set 7-5. However, as she would do so often throughout her career, Williams recovered brilliantly in the third set to win it 6-3 and claim her fifth Miami title, defending the crown that she had won a year earlier.
- 2007: Serena Williams beats Justine Henin 0–6 7–5 6–3
In the noughties, the only serious rivals that the Williams Sisters had for global tennis supremacy were “The Belgians,” Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Because they shared a nationality, Henin and Clijsters were usually thought of together, but in reality Clijsters only really emerged from Henin’s considerable shadow at the end of that decade. That was when she returned after her own initial retirement to win three more Majors (the US Opens of 2009 and 2019, and the Australian Open of 2011) to go with the lone Major (the 2005 US Open) that she had won in the first phase of her career.
For most of the decade, Henin was the singular “Belgian” who took on and regularly beat both Williams sisters, as she won seven Majors in total (four French Opens, two US Opens and one Australian Open), with only her failure to win at Wimbledon preventing her from winning the career Grand Slam.
2007 was Henin’s annus mirabilis, which is all the more impressive given that she had begun the year by withdrawing from the Australian Open to deal with the end of her marriage to Pierre-Yves Hardenne, whose surname she had briefly added to her own. Nevertheless, she recovered to win both the French Open and the US Open, only failing to make it a hat-trick of Majors in the same calendar year when she lost to Marion Bartoli in the Wimbledon semifinal. (As a true clay-court specialist, Henin never truly mastered playing on grass.)
And apart from that loss to Bartoli, arguably the worst loss of that remarkable year for Henin came in Miami where, despite bagelling Serena Williams in the first set (one of the very few times that Williams has ever been bagelled anywhere), she could not withstand the inevitable Williams comeback and lost the last two sets.
- 2001: Venus Williams beats Jennifer Capriati 4–6 6–1 7–6 (7–4)
To begin with, as was the case with so many aspects of their tennis careers, it was the elder Williams sister, Venus, who dominated in Miami, winning three out of four Miami titles between 1998 and 2001. It was tempting to include her narrow 1999 victory over younger sister Serena in the 1999 Miami final (6–1, 4–6, 6–4) on this list, as it was one of the few genuinely competitive matches between the siblings; most of the time, even in Major finals, the sheer closeness of their relationship seemed to prohibit them from going all-out against each other.
Ultimately, however, I have selected the third of Venus’s hat-trick of winning Miami finals, against Jennifer Capriati in 2001, if only because the third set in that final was even tighter than the one in 1999, with Venus just edging the deciding tie-break 7-4.
At the time, Capriati was on the hottest of hot streaks, as she finally put her “wild childhood” behind her (at her nadir in the mid-1990s, she was arrested for shoplifting and possession of marijuana, and consequently her “mugshot” became one of the most infamous ever taken up to that point). She had just won her first ever Major in Melbourne, stunningly defeating Martina Hingis in straight sets in the final, and would go on to win the French Open, defeating Kim Clijsters in one of the greatest ever French Open women’s finals, eventually triumphing 12-10 in the third set.
But in between those two magnificent Major victories, in which Capriati finally fulfilled the potential that she had first exhibited as a very young teen, she ran headlong into Venus Williams in Miami. The result was a final that was not quite as epic as the one in Paris a few months later, but it was still undoubtedly one of the finest ever Miami Women’s finals. Capriati narrowly lost the first set and dominated Williams in the second set, before the two great Americans went toe to toe for the entirety of the third set, and ultimately were only separated by an extremely tight tie-break.
- 1993: Arantxa Sánchez Vicario beats Steffi Graf 6–4 3–6 6–3
Another rivalry in women’s tennis that was easily better than that between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova was that between Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Steffi Graf in the 1990s. Indeed, when Monica Seles was tragically stabbed by a demented Steffi Graf “fan” at Hamburg in 1993, an attack that she arguably truly never recovered from, it was the Graf-Sánchez Vicario rivalry that was probably the closest in women’s tennis for the rest of the decade.
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If Graf ultimately won the “war” between them, collecting 22 Major Singles titles, Sánchez Vicario certainly won a few “battles”, collecting four Major Singles titles of her own. And outside of the Majors, her finest victory over Graf probably came in Miami in 1993.
Sánchez Vicario was the defending champion that year, having won the title the year before in straight sets against Gabriela Sabatini (who was the third great rival that Graf faced throughout her long and astonishingly successful career). However, the Final in 1993 was far more competitive, as Sánchez Vicario won the first set 6-4 before succumbing to Graf in the second set 6-3. Then, in the third set, Sánchez Vicario, who was a clay court specialist (winning the French Open three times) but could still excel on other surfaces, played perhaps the finest set she ever played on hardcourt to win the title.
In the process, she proved yet again that she was a truly great player and so much more than merely one half of the finest rhyming couplet in rap history. The couplet in question is part of Faithless’ 1996 track “If Loving You Is Wrong” (go look up the lyrics for yourself) and ironically it paid tribute to the Spaniard’s tireless, indeed unceasing, work rate on the tennis court.
Main Photo from Getty.