In November 2004, Maria Sharapova was eager to cap off her breakthrough year with an exclamation point. She arrived in Los Angeles to play the WTA Tour Championships, the eight-player round-robin event that often conclusively determined who was the year’s best player.
Four months earlier, Sharapova had won Wimbledon, in her last two matches beating a pair of multiple Grand Slam winners, Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams. It was a remarkable achievement for anyone, much less a 17-year-old playing Wimbledon for only the second time.
Since then, she’d won two tournaments. But those were smaller events, none of Sharapova’s opponents ranked in the top 60.
In the round-robin, Sharapova earned wins over a pair of her fellow Russians, world number eleven Vera Zvonareva and reigning US Open champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova. In the knockout semifinal stage, Sharapova beat another one of her compatriots, Roland Garros titlist Anastasia Myskina, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Now on November 15 came a supreme test: Serena Williams. She too had won a three-set semi, a dramatic 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 effort versus Amelie Mauresmo.
This was the first time Sharapova and Williams had played one another since the Wimbledon final. Despite feeling pain in her abdomen, Williams won the first set, 6-4. But it got worse in the next set, Williams requesting a medical timeout as Sharapova leveled the match, 6-2.
In the third, a clearly injured Williams was unable to serve as fast as usual. But she hit her groundstrokes fiercely, taking a 4-0 lead.
“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 in a tennis-x.com story about 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 Sharapova in time rallied, taking the last six games. On match point, Williams serving at 4-5, 15-40, Sharapova struck a down-the-line forehand service return for a winner to earn a $1,000,000 payday. “This was some of the best tennis of my life,” Sharapova wrote in her 2017 autobiography, Unstoppable.
Sharapova’s two wins over Williams that year gave hopes that this would blossom into one of the WTA’s greatest rivalries. The next time they played one another was a gem. In the semis of the 2005 Australian Open, Sharapova held three match points. But Williams demonstrated trademark resilience, winning that match, 2-6, 7-5, 8-6. From there, they played 18 more times. Williams won them all.
Years later, Sharapova reflected on that Los Angeles title run. “’Yeah, I was in Los Angeles where I had been training with Robert [Lansdorp] for so many years,” she said in a tennisworldusa.org article. “It felt like a home tournament in a way for me. I remember the players. It was of course a very tough field as always. Just going through the draw there and the way that I felt and the way I played, I’ve seen some clips as well, very inspiring.”