A sickly Serena Williams gave Maria Sharapova another serving of grand slam heartbreak on Saturday to win the Australian Open and bolster her claims to be the all-time greatest player with her 19th major title.
Though wheezing, coughing and forced off court to be sick during a rain-break, Williams’s serve stayed in the rudest of health and her athleticism astonished in a nerve-shredding 6-3 7-6(5) victory under the lights of Rod Laver Arena.
In sealing her sixth title at Melbourne Park, Williams surpassed Martina Navratilova, the woman who handed her the trophy, and Chris Evert in grand slam title wins, while drawing level with fellow American Helen Wills Moody, third in the all-time list.
At 33, the oldest Australian Open winner in the professional era and still the boss, Williams left few in doubt that the pursuit of Steffi Graf’s 22 titles and Margaret Court’s 24 would continue.
“I would love to get to 22,” the top seed told reporters, her voice still raspy from a week-long cold.
“Nineteen was very difficult to get to. Took me 33 years to get here. So I would love to get there. But I have to get to 20 first, and then I have to get to 21.
“There’s so many wonderful young players coming up, so it will be a very big task.
“(Nineteen) was my goal. So I didn’t think it would happen this fast, to be honest, but it feels really good.”
In her 19th match against Sharapova, and after defeating 19-year-old American Madison Keys in the semi-finals, it was Williams’ 18th ace that sealed the match on the third match point.
She bounded around the court like a woman possessed, squealing in delight as Sharapova sat quietly in her chair, nursing the pain of a 16th straight defeat by Williams and a third loss in grand slam finals to the American champion.
Steamrolled in the opening set, the five-times grand slam champion was magnificent in the second as she dragged herself off the canvas and staved off defeat twice on match points with crunching winners that teased the lines.
A 2008 winner at Melbourne Park, but runner-up to Williams in the 2007 tournament and again at Roland Garros in 2013, Sharapova’s last win over the American came in 2004, when she was a 17-year-old sensation still finding her feet.
Now 27, Sharapova said she felt she was getting closer to crashing through the Serena wall.
“I feel like I gave myself a second life in this tournament and I gave myself an opportunity,” Sharapova, nearly dumped out in the second round by compatriot Alexandra Panova, said at the trophy ceremony.
“It wasn’t quite enough today, but I’m proud of the effort.
“I’ve had some of the best memories of my career on this court but also some of the biggest losses of my life on this court, but that’s the life of a tennis player.”
Though sharing raw power and mental toughness in common, Sharapova and Williams have never been close and there was little warmth on a chilly night as the pair posed on court for the pre-game pictures.
On her first shot, Williams made her intentions clear, with a thumping backhand return too hot to handle.
A break point followed and Sharapova, already under pressure, double-faulted to concede serve.
Rain fell midway through the set, forcing a break and the American bashed a ball away in disgust before marching to the exit and pacing a tunnel under Rod Laver Arena.
She returned, coughing into a towel but doubled back immediately, ducking off court again to vomit.
“I guess there’s a first time for anything,” Williams said.
“I think in a way that just helped me — I felt better after that. My chest was really stuck at that point.”
She came back to smash an ace and blast a forehand winner to close out the game and though dropping serve once, she broke back and roared a blood-curdling “come on!” after taking the set.
Sharapova rallied, clinching a break point at 3-3 in the second, but an unreturnable serve down the middle slammed the door on the chance before Williams rocketed her 13th ace and third of the game to hold firm.
The Russian nervelessly slapped away a match point when serving to stay in the match at 5-4 and repeated the trick at 6-4 in the tiebreak, but as ever, Williams’s serve had the final say, the booming ace announcing the champion like the first volley of a 21-gun salute.
The Italian pairing of Simone Bolelli and Fabio Fognini closed proceedings at Melbourne Park, beating French duo Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut 6-4 6-4 to win the men’s doubles title.
Top seed Novak Djokovic will bid for an eighth grand slam title on Sunday when he faces sixth seed Andy Murray in the men’s singles final.