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The Sharapova Question

From NBC SportsWorld:

I wrote a piece about the remarkable — and illogical — 18-match win streak that Serena Williams now has over Maria Sharapova. Hope you read it.

But want to mention something else here. On Twitter, I had asked people if they could think of anything quite like this: Where one great player (Sharapova is one of only seven women in the Open Era to have won the career grand slam) is so thoroughly dominated by another.

There were some interesting suggestions — Secretariat over Sham, Tiger Woods over Sergio Garcia, Michael Jordan over the Knicks, Michael Phelps over Ryan Lochte, Rafa Nadal over Roger Federer (especially on clay) and so on. I don’t think any of those is quite on the level of this one, but one brilliant reader threw another one out there: Tom Brady over Peyton Manning.

The reader did couch that one by saying that it would have made more sense if Brady had beaten Manning in the AFC Championship a couple of days ago.

But what I found interesting about the suggestion is this: Peyton Manning has DOMINATED this rivalry the last decade. It just goes to show you the stubbornness of sports narratives.

Brady’s Patriots beat Manning’s Colts the first six times the teams met, including twice in the playoffs. And, at that point, we had a clear sense of what these two men were about. Brady was the cool customer who made few mistakes and rallied the team and won the game. Manning was the prolific regular season passer who tightened up in the playoffs and could not find a way to beat the Belichick defense.

A decade later, people still tell the same story. But the story isn’t the same at all. Manning and Brady’s teams have played 11 times over the last decade, and Manning’s team has won six of them. More significantly, Manning has won the last three AFC Championships the teams played, and you could argue pretty convincingly that he outplayed Brady in all three.

In other words, this “Brady owns Manning” meme should have died a long time ago, but it hasn’t because entertaining memes don’t die.

The Unconquerable Foe

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44 Responses to The Sharapova Question

  1. David says:

    I’m SO GLAD you mentioned that here! I was expecting to see something about Manning/Brady in your Sharapova piece, and was surprised it wasn’t there. I figured, “Joe’s not even printing that, even though SOMEONE must’ve said it, because he knows it’s not true.” Sure enough. 🙂

  2. Davan Mani says:

    Pete Sampras over Andre Agassi.

  3. Mark says:

    Played a bit of squash and there were always a couple of players you refused to lose to, whatever the reason.

  4. John Leavy says:

    Not an individual matchup, but how about the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers?

    • Dan says:

      The individual baseball matchup that sticks in my mind is Brett vs Gossage. It is said that Gossage actually fared well against Brett but some of Brett’s biggest hits came against Gossage. So there are statistics and then there are memories.

    • I notice you went with “Brooklyn” Dodgers, which ceased to exist in 1959. Probably so you could note the domination in the 50s despite an almost annual meeting. Even then, the Brooklyn Dodgers did win in 1955. But, the Dodgers overall are 3-8 against the Yankees in the World Series. Bad, but far from a shutout.

  5. Mike says:

    I think Tiger vs. the field is the best example I can think of in terms of a dominance. It’s not just that he won so much – he was the best by far, we knew that – but the demonstrated, repeatable effect that other players played worse than they normally would, JUST BECA– USE HE WAS THERE, is what amazes me.

  6. jflegault says:

    Manning is 6-5 and he now he dominates the rivalry?


    QBs don’t play against each other…

    • Reagan says:

      True, QBs don’t play each other, but that’s how the rivalry gets defined. And, when one team’s offense scores, there is now pressure on the other team’s offense to score. That pressure often forces mistakes.

      And Joe’s point relates to the 3-0 record in AFC Championship games over the last decade. I’m not a fan of either team, but I would trade 3-0 in the playoffs for all of the regular season wins in a second.

      Here’s an angle to this rivalry that no one mentions: the home team has won every game since 2009. Aside from the Pats 2001 win against the awful Jim Mora team, the road team has won only four times – none in the playoffs.

      • jflegault says:

        Without even talking Super Bowls (since it wouldn’t be faire to Manning)

        I prefer 10 AFC title games participation for Brady than 7 one and done for Manning

        • mark says:

          That’s not head to head, which is the subject.

          • Reagan says:

            Agree with Mark. I wasn’t trying open a bigger can of worms. (But speaking of the one-and-dones, the total number is as shocking as the five times that a Peyton team lost the first playoff game at home after a bye. That’s five times some team from the wildcard round beat his rested team at home. That used to never happen. From 1990-95 it happened a total of two times.)

            Back to this home team domination of the Manning-Brady rivalry, here’s another way to look at it: The last time Manning or Brady won on the road against the other was 2007.

        • NRJyzr says:

          QB head to head is even more ludicrous than pitcher wins. But, if one *really* wants to look at Super Bowl wins, one must point out that NE has fewer untainted wins than does Mr Manning. 🙂
          (caveat: not a Colts fan, nor even an AFC person)

  7. Marco says:

    Bob Uecker owned Sandy Koufax

  8. MisterMJ says:

    I think it dates back to the 2004 Wimbledon finals, when Maria steamrolled Serena for the title – it was a huge upset and really “made” Maria … her incredible wealth, her global brand status, etc. They next met at the year-end WTA finals that year, where Maria won again. At that point, she was being anointed as the next great figure in women’s tennis and Serena would be forever be in the rear-view mirror.

    At that point, I think Serena convinced herself she would not lose to Sharapova again – even amidst her health issues and periods of ill-motivation, she would always be “up” to playing Sharapova. It doesn’t hurt when she sees Sharapova as a endorsement cash cow, making many millions of dollars more than Serena off the court – so that adds another sizable chip on her shoulder.

    I think this attitude also seeped to the other side, where doubt and confidence were sapped a bit from Sharapova whenever she saw Serena on the other side of the net. Considering style of play, Sharapova overpowers her opponents and has the strongest mental fortitude (ability to fight, not give up) outside Serena. But none of those attributes bother Serena much, who’s more physical, faster, and even stronger mentally. How can anyone hit through Serena? The players who rub Serena the wrong way are the counter-punchers who can change pace (slice), provide a different look now and then (get to the net), move great, and get everything back in the play … that’s just not Sharapova.

  9. zeke bob says:

    I still think Graf is the greatest women’s player of all time with Serena second, but it is so hard to compare even within relatively brief eras due to both how you evaluate their relative competition (which I think has been very weak for Serena over the past few years) and the effects of changing racket & string technology which gives modern players distinct advantages. Can you imagine playing the current power baseline game with rackets from the 80s?

    But really I came on here to respectfully nominate another player for the top 6 women from Joe’s article, and honestly I’d slot her ahead of Margaret Court and Billie Jean. A player with one of the most amazing “tennis minds” I’ve ever seen, from either tour, who was often at a distinct power disadvantage compared to her opponents. A player who is still successfully playing doubles, and is in fact about to try and compete for the same doubles title at the Aussie Open she first won at age 16 nineteen years ago.

    Martina Hingis

    Consider her head to head against some other notables:
    15-5 vs Monica Seles
    2-7 vs Steffi Graf
    2-2 vs Justine Henin
    5-4 vs Jennifer Capriati
    11-10 vs Venus Williams
    6-7 vs Serena Williams (and only 1 match against Serena on clay, she was 5-7 on hard courts)

    To me, she has always been an amazing player to watch, a deft volleyer and a great tactician.

    • DB says:

      I still say Martina is the GOAT. If we talk about level of competition, who else can compare to both Graf and Evert. Not sure anyone can say they had to face off against 2 of the 5 best of all time (and Martina was fighting Graf when she was in her 30s). Take away Graf and Evert, Martina has 26 singles slams. She only lost another 6 (Goolagong in Australia as an 18 year old, Tracy Austin in the US Open, Mandlikova (2) (who actually won 4 slams herself), Seles and Conchita Martinez (as a 38 year old and it went to three sets). Then you add in the Doubles and Mixed, it is just incredible. First finals in 1975 and last one in 1994 (20 years).

      • It’s really hard to compare eras and both Graf and Navratilova dominated their eras. But it is very hard to say they were better than Serena, especially since Serena is still the #1 player & could go on for a while. Had she not had injuries and kind of lost focus for a while, it might not even be an argument. I’m really not a fan of Serena’s. She’s not a very approachable star and she’s sometimes kind of awkward & off putting with her comments. But her domination is really inarguable. Still, I think those are your Top 3.

        That said, in her time, Margaret Court may have been even more dominant. She was before my time, so I didn’t really see her play except for the Bobby Riggs fiasco. The game was SO different then because of the equipment and the level of athleticism, but if you look at her titles, her Grand Slam, etc. It’s a pretty crazy record she has.

        • zeke bob says:

          Out of curiosity, I looked up how many weeks each of those 3 served as #1, along with their win percentages for singles:
          Serena 277 wks so far, 741-123, 85.8 %
          Navratilova 332 wks, 1442-219 record, 86.8%
          Graf 377 wks, 900-115, 88.7%

          While it’s true Serena has had some injuries that curtailed some of her playing time, I think a lot of that was also her own choice as she’s never been a heavy schedule kind of player.

          Meanwhile, Graf retired shortly after turning 30 and was still the #3 player in the world. I’m sure she still would have been dangerous for a couple of more years if she had hung on, a la Federer, but she was basically tired of tennis.

          It really is hard to compare though, and adjust for competition, I just think there is a considerable element of recency bias that goes into a lot of the argument for Serena as GOAT.

          • jalabar says:

            I think Steffi Graf was a great tennis player. I do not think she could have competed with Martina or Serena at their best. In fact, I think Graf a bit fortunate that she came along when she did, kind of right between Navratilova and the Williams sisters. Understand, I am not talking about careers. Steffi Graf had as good a career as any tennis player has. What I am saying is that I believe Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams at their best would consistently beat Steffi Graf at her best. Not all the time, but more often than not. But that is my opinion. YMMV.

  10. best fastpitch softball bat : Great site. Does you provide any Sports related service ?

  11. Kuz says:

    Sharapova is quite attractive.

  12. Tom Geraghty says:

    This is a team thing, not an individual one, but I believe the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys something like 10 straight times between 1972 and 1982.

    • Reagan says:

      Well, it’s not quite that bad, but yes, the Bradshaw era Steelers had it over the Cowboys. Regular season wins for Pittsburgh: 1977, 1979, 1982. Regular season win for Dallas: 1972. Not so bad.

      And then there were those two Super Bowls… That’s the back breaker.

  13. Pat says:

    I was going to be mean and say “the Cleveland Browns vs. John Elway.”

    But then I thought better of it and decided to be mean and say “the Cleveland Browns vs. their own shoelaces.”

    • Reagan says:

      Well, there are only two games of consequence for the Cleveland-Denver rivalry, the two AFC Championship games of the Lindy Infanty offense. It’s just that they were so tragic. (And yes, I’m excluding the 1989 AFC Championship game because the winner was going to be cannon fodder for the 49ers.)

  14. Brian Foley says:

    The Cleveland Browns vs. their own fans.

  15. Brent says:

    Hammerhead Hagen vs. Honey Roy Palmer

  16. Psychology : Great writer. Thank you writing for this good article .

  17. John Leavy says:

    I must have overlooked some post that mentioned Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, right? I can’t possibly be the first to think of them!

    Yes,I know Wilt had many great games against Russell, but who got all the rings?

  18. Brett Favre over Steve Young. 6 out of 7 (or something like that.)

  19. Marco. says:

    Joe: The “Djokovic is going to catch Federer” talk ha begun in earnest. America desperately needs you to weigh in.

  20. Except for Henin (who was much better than Serena at peak) Serena has had to deal with the incredibly weak Female Tennis world of the past decade or so; Sharapova might be slightly better than Ana Ivanovic or Azarenka but she’s still pretty underwhelming on the whole. There is no rivalry to speak of, Serena’s an excellent player but almost everyone else is very rarely good right now.

  21. Fart says:

    Frank Thomas vs Nolan Ryan: 0-for-12 with 11 (!) strikeouts.

  22. Hamster Huey says:

    Someone (Bill Barnwell?) wrote an interesting thought-piece on how the Manning-Brady narrative would be spun if both of their careers had unfolded exactly in reverse chronological order. This was written before this year’s disastrous Manning regular season – actually, I think it was also before last year’s Super Bowl, so Brady would have “started” his career with a couple unseemly SB losses to the Giants where his team was favored, including once when unbeaten.

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