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There is a look Serena Williams gets when she talks about her greatest enemy (if not her biggest rival), Maria Sharapova.

Williams is generally an electric presence at a podium. She could keep you riveted reading from a phone book.

But when she talks about Sharapova, everything about her goes flat. You can see her shutting down in lieu of freaking out.

She got that look over the weekend when discussing Sharapova’s autobiography. In it, the Russian included a not-especially tawdry description of Williams’s reaction to losing to her in a Wimbledon final many years ago.

Williams was devastated in the locker room afterward, overcome by “guttural sobs,” Sharapova wrote.

Sharapova credited that moment with Williams’s complete dominance of her since. In her book, Sharapova said she had heard that Williams vowed to never lose to her again.

Turned a certain way, it’s a compliment. Many athletes would take it like that – I bent you, then you broke me. Williams doesn’t see it that way.

She’d avoided talking about it for a year. Since she’s playing Sharapova on Monday at Roland Garros, dodging was no longer possible.

The book is “100-per-cent hearsay” (a high bar to meet) and “a little bit disappointing,” Williams said.

She denied having read it. She tried that popular new scold, “women … should bring each other up.” She did not utter Sharapova’s name.

Williams has never had a problem calling things as they lay, but on the subject of Sharapova, she has trouble sorting herself out. That’s how you know you truly despise someone.

This started as a tennis thing. Tennis hasn’t been the issue for a while. Sharapova hasn’t beaten Williams in 14 years – the length of two middling careers.

At some point, it got personal. Williams said something about Sharapova’s boyfriend (but really about her). Sharapova then said something about Williams’s boyfriend (but really about her). One presumes there were a thousand cutting looks and comments behind the scenes.

The loudest shots were always taken in the media. Names were never named. A tight smile was always maintained throughout. The feelings may have been hot, but the tone was always deep freeze.

A lot of sports rivalries have that “How I Met My Best Friend” feel. Williams vs. Sharapova isn’t like that. It is never going the way of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird – two enemies finally bother talking to each other, realize they are really the same person, and decide to make an athletic rom-com together.

This one is true hate.

A few professional athletes genuinely hate each other (far fewer than you’d imagine). What’s remarkable about this feud is its length. At some point, you’d think one or the other would tire of it. But neither woman is made that way.

Sharapova’s presentation is pure hauteur. She has always taken trouble to be seen as above everything – the game, her opponents, emotions.

No top player has ever taken losing more in her stride, because (one strongly suspects) to show disappointment would be to admit weakness.

Maybe that’s why her locker room description bothers Williams so much. Sharapova is making note of something she herself would never do.

By contrast, Williams’s public projection is one of relentless positivity. From the up-by-your-bootstraps backstory to the devout Christianity, Williams does not want to think of herself as someone who dislikes other people. That’s the thing she’s above.

Except, plainly, neither is above anything when it comes to the other.

This French Open is Williams’s first major in more than a year. Her absence allowed an opportunity for other names to come to the fore of women’s tennis, but none did.

As a result, she’s come back to raptures. “As good as she ever was” seems to be the consensus after a week, unless you’ve watched her.

Williams is 36 years old. She just had a baby. Fourteen months off toward the tail end of a career is not conducive to athletic improvement.

Williams is still very good. She may be great again. But she is currently a ways off from her previous, nearly unbeatable self.

Sharapova’s been back a while (from drug suspension) and looks just like her old self – streaky, verging on mediocre. She’s only 31, but there are a lot of miles on those legs. Her only period of dominance – if that’s the right word – was a dozen years ago.

Who’s going to win on Monday? It shouldn’t matter. It’s the round of 16. One of the competitors is just getting her feet underneath her. The other isn’t that good any more. They’ve both been around forever. Who cares?

They do. They care an awful lot. So we do, too.

Tennis used to be better at this unscripted theatre.

The reason a human Care Bear such as Rafael Nadal makes so much now is that enthusiastic malcontents such as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe hated each other so much back then. That was a sport you wanted to watch.

As more people did, the edges got smoothed off. Now everyone who matters likes everyone else. They’re all best friends, travelling the world, making millions, doing photo-ops with ballboys.

It’s a lovely, life-affirming example to young children and boring. God, so boring.

Williams and Sharapova are a tonic for all these wretched, sunny vibes. Every good story needs some tension. They’re the only two willing to provide it.

All that’s missing from this tennis rivalry is the tennis part. It’s hard to maintain interest if only one person ever wins.

Williams will probably do so again, but it’s in the best interest of the game that she loses. That would reignite the rivalry.

A Sharapova win opens up all kinds of wonderfully malign possibilities – more books, more interviews, more front-stabbing and more transparent denials that anything’s going on.

And maybe, for the first time since these two were kids, more matches that people who don’t care about tennis will have to care about.

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