Serena Williams holds the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen after defeating Maria… (Christophe Ena / Associated…)
PARIS — — Sweet 16 for Serena Williams came courtesy of yet another ace, an exclamation point drilled into the red clay on the last point of the match. The sizzling serve sealed her 16th Grand Slam title and her place, at age 31, at the pinnacle of women's tennis.
In a much-anticipated showdown Saturday between the world's No. 1 and No. 2 female players, Williams took on Maria Sharapova, the reigning titleholder, at the French Open. But Williams' 6-4, 6-4 victory, a career-best 31st in a row, underlined the distance between her and the rest of the pack, which has struggled to match her power, speed and variety since last summer.
Such was the case for the long-legged Sharapova, whose own penetrating groundstrokes can leave opponents flat-footed. She swung freely in Saturday's final and smacked some sparkling winners, but too often Williams countered with greater force, running down balls and swatting back blistering replies that kept the defending champion doing just that: defending.
Williams' formidable serve — the hardest and fastest on the women's tour — produced 10 aces. Three landed in the final game, when she said she was so nervous that she prayed for aces to spare her from having to hit any follow-up strokes.
"She's always had a big serve," said Sharapova, who elicited laughter by comparing the shot to men's finalist David Ferrer's. "I think her second serve is better than it was in the past. ...
"I did put up a fight obviously today against her. It was not enough."
Sharapova, 26, has now lost to Williams 13 times in a row, including four matches this year. Her moral victory Saturday was to break Williams' serve twice and to keep her on the court for 1 hour 46 minutes, more than half an hour longer on average than the American's previous opponents managed.
The emphatic win gave Williams the repeat title from the one Grand Slam tournament that had been lacking. In the years since her 2002 championship on the famous red clay that the French call terre battue, she had not reached a French final and was ignominiously ousted in the first round last year by a player ranked more than 100 places below her.
Now she owns more Grand Slam singles titles than the next four winners combined on the women's tour — her closest rival, sister Venus, has seven — and is within sight of the 18 collected by both Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who along with Steffi Graf are the only other women in the modern era to repeat as champions in all four majors.
"It's awesome," Williams said. "I'm just trying to go up and up. Today when I won, I was trying to win the French Open — wasn't trying to get to No. 16. ... It's really special."
Her aggressive style was evident from the start under the blue skies that smiled down on Roland Garros. A rush to the net, a forehand winner and a hammered return set up triple-break point on Sharapova's serve.
The Russian saved all three and another one besides, then broke Williams for a 2-0 lead. But Sharapova squandered her lead, getting broken by the American in the next game and twice more en route to losing the first set.
Just how large a mountain stood before Sharapova was reflected in her constant fist-pumps and shouts of "Come on!" from the outset. In the hole, she played high-risk tennis, going for the lines, realizing that clean winners were virtually the only way to glean points. It was high-decibel tennis too, with both women grunting at every stroke, like boxers trading punches.
The crowd added its cries of "Allez, Maria!" in the second set, willing the Russian to erase five break points to hold the crucial opening game.
But Williams poured on the pressure, pouncing on short balls and winning her own service games handily, never facing a break point. Whereas Sharapova seemed to go for broke, Williams appeared to be retaining her strength, with another level still in reserve.
Two consecutive errors by Sharapova put Williams up at 2-1, after which the American didn't look back.
When it was over and the shiny Coupe Suzanne Lenglen was hers once again, Williams had 29 winners compared to the Russian's 10.
Afterward, she laughed when asked by a reporter whether she wanted to retire at her peak, like Greta Garbo.
"I definitely ... want to go out on my peak. That's my goal," Williams said, then struck even more fear in her opponents by adding: "But have I peaked yet?"