MIAMI, FL, USA - Serena Williams knows how to find another gear when she needs it.
It felt like Sharapova was the better player for considerable periods of the contest and amazingly outhit Williams from the back of the court with 13 groundstroke winners to 10. Sharapova played with more power and precision than we have seen in recent times, especially from her forehand wing, and dominated with more superior court position.
Sharapova hugged the baseline as much as possible, making contact with the ball 29% of the time inside the baseline, which was slightly better than the 24% Williams could manage. Sharapova welcomed forehands in this match, hitting 58% forehands from the back of the court while Williams was a little more even at 54%.
Sharapova was either ahead or played equal with Williams (4-4 in Set 1/3-3 in Set 2) and then Williams would refocus and produce untouchable tennis to quickly race to the finish line in both sets.
The Williams serve, as it often is, proved to be the difference maker.
SAP advanced analytics showed Williams hit eight aces but more importantly 48% of her first serves and 23% of her second serves were unreturned by Sharapova. Williams' fastest serve was 123mph - 18mph faster than the quickest Sharapova could deliver. This had a domino effect on the rest of the point as Williams' average rally length after a first serves was only 2.97 shots while Sharapova was almost double that at 4.67. Once the first serve was missed things became very even with Williams' average rally length 4.71 shots, slightly shorter than Sharapova's at 4.85 shots.
The start of the match showed a lot of promise for the Russian.
Sharapova got out of an early 15-40 hole in her opening service game, hitting two forehand winners while Williams committed two forehand errors in the net. Sharapova was also down 15-40 in her second service game at 1-1 but Williams again committed two errors to level the score at deuce and Sharapova crushed two of her biggest forehands of the match to get out of the game.
Getting out of those two holes as well as outhitting Williams early on buoyed Sharapova's confidence and she stepped up again with a big forehand winner down the line in the next game with Williams serving at 0-30 that helped secure her first break of serve and a 3-1 lead.
With Williams serving at 1-4 Sharapova sent a message with a rocket forehand right at the American. Williams approached the net and Sharapova unloaded with one of the biggest forehands of the match right at Williams and then followed up with a delicate backhand, short-angle passing shot winner.
Sharapova was only seven points away from steamrolling the first set but this is where Williams regroups better than any player on tour.
A forehand approach winner and a huge ace out wide helped Williams stop Sharapova's momentum and hold to get to 2-4. It was primarily Sharapova's forehand that got her into the commanding position but it was Sharapova's backhand that unraveled and let Williams right back into the match. From 15-15 Sharapova committed three consecutive backhand errors and the break lead evaporated just like that.
Sharapova held a break point with Williams serving at 3-4, 30-40 but a huge first serve down the middle was unreturnable by Sharapova. Sharapova got broken again at 4-4 with another backhand error in the net and four more errors from Sharapova nailed the opening set for Williams.
Williams' serve dramtically improved in the second set which increased the pressure all over the court for Sharapova. Serving at 2-3, Williams started the game with two aces down the middle then Sharapova barely got her racquet on the next two deliveries - not making Williams have to play any extra shots past a serve for the game.
Sharapova lost her serve at 3-3 to love with two forehand and two backhand errors and was broken again at 3-5 as Williams' momentum carried her to victory. It was the 15th time in a row that Williams has figured out how to get over the line against Sharapova.
Craig O'Shannessy (@BrainGameTennis) is the leading analyst for wtatennis.com throughout the 2014 season, utilizing SAP Data & Insights to uncover the patterns and percentages that dominate the game. Visit Craig's website at www.braingametennis.com for more expert strategy analysis.