On Day 11, it was time to get down to business in Melbooure. Time to go about deciding who'll fight it out for the right to be crowned champion two days from now. And after a tournament highlighted by big upsets, breakthroughs and near-miss catastrophes... the top two ranked players in the world are the only women left standing.
Umm, all right. Well, we can work with that. The question is, "Can Maria?"
Today's pair of semifinals were both won in straight sets fashion by historical figures in the sport, but in many ways the matches were polar opposites. In the all-Russian face-off between Maria Sharapova and Ekaterina Makarova, the latter's questionable confidence that she could reverse her wanting history (0-5 head-to-head) against the five-time slam winner didn't take long to surface, and it lingered throughout a contest in which the result was never really in doubt. In the all-American semi between 18-time slam champ Serena Williams and teenage first-time slam semifinalist Madison Keys, the world #1 was in good form but still had to contend with an unblinking opponent with a nearly-unbridled array of weapons and a cool demeanor that almost -- almost -- made one think that anything was possible... even when it seemed an impossibility in the late stages of the match.
In the opening games of the Sharapova/Makarova match, Makarova had a chance to get off to the sort of start that would have helped to lift her personal cloud of impending doom. With the wind playing havoc with her service toss and her forehand having a diffcult time adjusting to the conditions in the opening points, Sharapova faced two break points in the opening game. It took her ten minutes to do it, and Makarova failing to take advantage of the 2nd serves she saw, but Sharapova held for 1-0 and cleared the first hurdle in her quest for her fourth Australian Open final. Then, after holding game point in her own first service game, Makarova was broken for 2-0 when Sharapova crushed a forehand return winner.
Makarova, already muttering to herself, started to argue with the members of her camp in the stands. And the rout was on.
But not before Makarova, appearing in her second straight slam semi, had one last chance to get into the match. After getting on the board after winning a replay challenge that prevented her from facing a second break point in game #4, Makarova saved a break point two games later and got things back on serve with a break of Sharapova's serve in game #7. But Sharapova broke right back with a backhand winner for 5-3, and Makarova was finished. Just like she likely feared would happen before the match... making the outcome all the more certain.
With Sharapova maintaining her high level of serving since saving match points in the 2nd Round against Alexandra Panova, and adding in slices and volleys for some additional variety in her game, she won eight of the final nine points of the set, taking it at 6-3 and running off six straight games, taking a 4-0 lead in the 2nd. Makarova isn't exactly a power player anyway, but her forehand let her down all match long and only added to Sharapova's momentum. After Sharapova put in two double-faults and faced a pair of break points in the sixth game of the set, she used her seemingly improved defensive skils (finally healthy during an offseason, she seems to have worked on all aspects of her game) to save them both and hold for 5-1. It was all over two games later, with Sharapova winning 6-3/6-2 to run her record against fellow Hordettes to 23-1 since 2011.
In the second semifinal, it often seemed as if the past, present and future of American tennis -- and, maybe just tennis -- were all simultaneosly competing on the same court at Rod Laver Arena. While Williams was indeed the better player on the day, make no mistake about it that Keys, unlike Makarova earlier, conceded nothing in her first-ever match-up against one of her idols. While the losing Russian in the other semi never really got into her match, Keys never let herself get out of hers, often looking like a younger version of Serena Williams, or maybe a more fluid edition of her ball-thumping coach, Lindsay Davenport.
When Davenport was at her best, the ball came off her racket like that of no other player. It had a certain sound to it that was recognizable by ear alone. Keys' clean groundstrokes sound very similar, and judging by the way Williams often struggled to get her power shots back, to the point of having to fight them off and falling back and stumbling in the process, the 19-year old's strokes are just as powerful. Oh, and did I mention her serve, and her striking ability to raise her game in the closing moments of a set, something which has been a hallmark of her run to these AO semifinals? Well, I guess I just did.
Keys opened the match by breaking Williams' serve, then holding with an ace combined with her usual thudding groudstrokes for a 2-0 lead. But Williams surged back, breaking to get back on serve at 3-3 and holding at love a game later. But whatever Serena delivered, Keys gave right back, winning 91% (21/23) of her 1st serves in the set. She aced Williams to hold for 5-5, then saw Williams come right back and erase a 15/30 deficit, lobbing over Keys and acing her, as well, to hold for 6-5. Serving to stay in the set for a second time, Keys held easily once again and forced a tie-break.
Williams won the tie-break by a 7-5 score, putting in a 124-mph ace to take an insurmountable 4-1 lead. But Keys' ability to stand up to and hit with Williams, often matching (and sometimes exceeding) her in powerful shot-for-shot battles, was a driving force in the set. Her back-to-back aces turned a 6-3 lead in the TB by Williams into a tight 6-5 contest that forced Serena to pull out a big serve to finally convert on her third set point attempt. With her amazing record in slam semifinals (22-3) and her good form today, it was hard to see Serena losing this match, but Keys gave her nothing without making her work hard for it.
Even after Williams broke her to take a 1-0 lead in the 2nd set, Keys immediately went up 40/15 on Serena's serve a game later. Serena ultimately fired an ace to reach game point, then held for 2-0. Keys held serve at love a game later, seeming to surprise Williams with her ability to cover the court (even with her left abductor muscle heavily strapped) in one point in which she ran down a ball off court and Williams guided her own shot back across the net, apparently thinking Keys couldn't get back across the court quickly enough to reach the ball. She did, getting the ball back and winning the point when Serena netted her forehand reply. Down 3-1, Keys had her only really awkward moment in the match. After Williams reached break point with a passing shot and wide Keys volley, the teenager double-faulted to fall behind 4-1. Serena held at love with her eleveth ace of the match to go up 5-1, and soon held a match point on Keys' serve.
And that's when Keys created her own little legend.
Just as she had to end the 1st set, rather than go out meekly, Keys came in with guns blazing. She fired an ace on Williams' first match point, then had a forehand winner on her second. On #3 -- another ace. She won a hard-hitting rally on #4, then used another forehand winner to save #5. A big serve prevented Serena from celebrating after match point #6, and another ball-thumping rally win saved #7. A forehand winner got Keys her third game point chance, and when she finally put away a hold for 5-2, she'd made her statement. Emphatically. She might not win today, but she's going to be around for a long time. Her hold of serve was a thing of beauty, and it says a great deal about Keys' possible future.
But Serena still had to serve out the match. She reached MP #8 at 40/30, then saw Keys fire her return of a 2nd serve deep into the backcourt at Williams' feet, forcing an error, knocking her backwards and causing her to stumble. All right, this was suddenly getting very serious. I mean, Williams could never lose a 5-1 lead, right? Right? Well, no. Not here, but it's a credit to Keys that she actually did cause everyone watching to consider the possibility. On MP #9, Serena fired her thirteenth ace of the match to win 7-6(5)/6-2 and move on to her next stage of tennis immortality. Rarely has a scoreline been much more misleading, though.
Even in defeat, it's difficult to not talk about Keys. In her first major semifinal, she was never on her heels or in awe of the situation, even in the face of an in-form Williams. If she didn't have it before, the teenager earned Serena's respect in this match, as well as a horde of new fans. Her no-holds-barred approach and lack of nerves could be nearly as important as her five wins in Melbourne, and will serve as yet another huge step forward in a career that could play a big role in guiding the sport over the next decade.
The future of American women's tennis seems like it could be in good hands. But that future isn't here. Not yet. At least not this week. Serena is still the one driving the bus.
Today's results now lead us into yet another episode of the curiously twisted tale that is the Serena/Sharapova career series. Defeating Serena not once, but twice, in 2004 cemented the Russian's legacy in the sport, but she's been fighting now for more than a decade -- and fifteen straight matches -- to get another win over the American. While Sharapova is the most supremely confident competitor in the sport, against Williams the doubt in her ability to win can be seen on her face, sometimes even before the match has begun. Usually, the matches haven't even been close, as Serena has never allowed herself to experience one of her now-common letdowns (brief or otherwise) when Sharapova has been on the other side of the net.
Interestingly, the losing streak began with a loss to Williams in the Australian Open semifinals in 2005, a match that ended in an 8-6 3rd set after Sharapova had held three match points. Will what began in Melbourne finally end there, as well?
History tells us that it doesn't seem likely. But maybe Sharapova, after a decade in the Serena wilderness, is ready to shock the world all over again.
(Yeah, I'm not sure I believe it's really possible, either.)
=DAY 11 NOTES=
...Serena's semifinal win assures that she'll remain in the #1 spot when the new rankings come out on Monday. Meanwhile, with a victory in the final Sharapova would be the simultaneous reigning champ at two slams, Roland Garros and the AO. That'd be a first for her career. Of course...
...the mixed doubles has some very interesting remaining teams. With the semifinals now set, #1-seeded Sania Mirza & Bruno Soares (the '14 U.S. Open champs) will face #3-seeds Kristina Mladenovic & Daniel Nestor, the reigning AO champs (who defeated Mirza in the final last year). In the other semi, #7 Martina Hingis & Leander Paes (w/ TOSM looking for her first slam title in nine years) get Hsieh Su-Wei & Pablo Cuevas. Hsieh won doubles titles (w/ Peng Shuai) at Roland Garros and Wimbledon the last two years, but has yet to pick up a mixed crown.
...the junior singles semifinals are set, and the Brits have a contender.
#14 seed Katie Swan, who upset #1-seed Xu Shilin in the 3rd Round, eliminated #11-seeded Bannerette Raveena Kingsley today, and will face #5 Dalma Galfi in the semis. The other semi pits two unseeded girls -- Waffle Greet Minnen and Slovak Tereza Mihalikova, the latter of which ended the run of Canada's Charlotte Robillard-Millette.
With the AO girls singles and doubles titles having been swept in each of the last four years -- An-Sophie Mestach in '11, Taylor Townsend in '12, Ana Konjuh in '13 and Elizaveta Kulichkova last year -- the only player still alive in the singles semifinals and doubles final is Minnen. She's apparently been rubbing elbows with at least one impressive fellow, though... so who knows, maybe she'll continue the Melbourne trend.
...in wheelchair action, Yui Kamiji moved a little bit closer toward pulling, hmmm, what would we call it? A "KamijiSlam?" Or maybe a "Vergeerian Slam?" Either way, the top-ranked women's WC tennis athlete handily defeated Sabine Ellerbrock 6-2/6-1 in the singles semifinal today, getting some measure of revenge for her loss to the German in last year's AO final, the only major title the 20-year old didn't win in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York in 2014. She's into the final where she'll next face Jiske Griffioen, who upset #2-seeded countrywoman Aniek Van Koot in an all-Dutch semifinal affair. Kamiji & Jordanne Whiley also advanced to the doubles final, where they'll play Griffioen & Van Koot. If Kamiji sweeps both titles, she'll be the reigning champion in all seven singles and doubles competitions at the slams.
...DAY 11 LIKE #1: ah, to get a chance to play for #19 you have to defeat a 19-year old. I guess it was in the stars, huh?
A little more: The final will be the nineteenth meeting between Williams and Sharapova. Are the Tennis Gods telling us something?
...DAY 11 DISLIKE: Tennis Australia holding a newsworthy press conference on the AO grounds during the second women's singles semifinal. Because, you know, it's not like there's anything important going on that reporters and tournament officials maybe should pay a little attention to or anything.
...DAY 11 LIKE #2: This.
...DAY 11 LIKE #3: The next Future face to watch...and she's not named Sloane, either.
...DAY 11 "Hmmm...": since Keys turns 20 this season, I guess this means I'll probably be doing another version of that Kournikova/Stephens/Bouchard (and now Keys) chart to include in the 2016 season preview, huh?
...and, finally, a woman's singles match is scheduled in the night session for the first time since Day 8.
They'll probabably hold a press conference about new stadium improvements for 2016 early in the 2nd set.
Well, now we know where Vika went AFTER Melbourne.
=WOMEN'S SINGLES FINAL=
#1 Serena Williams/USA vs #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS
=MEN'S SINGLES SF=
#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #4 Stan Wawrinka/SUI
#7 Tomas Berdych/CZE vs. #6 Andy Murray/GBR
=WOMEN'S DOUBLES FINAL=
Mattek-Sands/Safarova (USA/CZE) vs. #14 YJ.Chan/J.Zheng (TPE/CHN)
=MEN'S DOUBLES FINAL=
Bolelli/Fognini (ITA/ITA) vs. Herbert/Mahut (FRA/FRA)
=MIXED DOUBLES SF=
#1 Mirza/Soares (IND/BRA) vs. #3 Mladenovic/Nestor (FRA/CAN)
#7 Hingis/Paes (SUI/IND) vs. SW.Hsieh/Cuevas (TPE/URU)
=GIRLS SINGLES SF=
#14 Katie Swan/GBR vs. #5 Dalma Galfi/HUN
Greet Minnen/BEL vs. Tereza Mihalikova/SVK
=BOYS SINGLES SF=
#1 Roman Safiullin/RUS vs. Djurabeck Karimov/UZB
#7 Seong-chan Hong/KOR vs. #16 Akira Santillan/AUS
=GIRLS DOUBLES FINAL=
Hobnarski/Minnen (GER/BEL) vs. #2 Kolodziejova/Vondrousova (CZE/CZE)
=BOYS DOUBLES FINAL=
Delaney/Polmans (AUS/AUS) vs. #8 Hurkacz/Molcan (POL/SVK)
=WOMEN'S WC SINGLES FINAL=
#1 Yui Kamiji/JPN vs. Jiske Griffioen/NED
=MEN'S WC SINGLES FINAL=
#1 Shingo Kunieda/JPN vs. #2 Stephane Houdet/FRA
=WOMEN'S WC DOUBLES FINAL=
#1 Yui Kamiji/Jordanne Whiley (JPN/GBR) vs. #2 Jiske Griffioen/Aniek Van Koot (NED/NED)
=MEN'S WC DOUBLES FINAL=
#1 Shingo Kunieda/Stephane Houdet (JPN/FRA) vs. Gordon Reid/Gustavo Fernandez (GBR/ARG)
*SERENA vs. SHARAPOVA*
2004 Miami 4th - Serena 6-4/6-3
2004 Wimbledon Final - Sharapova 6-1/6-4
2004 WTA Final - Sharapova 4-6/6-2/6-4 (SW 4-0 3rd)
2005 Australian SF - Serena 2-6/7-5/8-6 (MS 3 MP)
2007 Australian Final - Serena 6-1/6-2
2007 Miami 4th - Serena 6-1/6-1
2008 Charleston QF - Serena 7-5/4-6/6-1 (MS SP 1st)
2010 Wimbledon 4th - Serena 7-6(9)/6-4 (MS 3 SP 1st)
2011 Stanford QF - Serena 6-1/6-3
2012 Madrid QF - Serena 6-1/6-3
2012 Olympics Final - Serena 6-0/6-1
2012 WTA Chsp. Final - Serena 6-4/6-3
2013 Doha SF - Serena 6-3/6-2
2013 Miami Final - Serena 4-6/6-3/6-0
2013 Madrid Final - Serena 6-1/6-4
2013 Roland Garros Final - Serena 6-4/6-4
2014 Brisbane SF - Serena 6-2/7-6(7)
2014 Miami SF - Serena 6-4/6-3 (MS up a break in 1st & 2nd)
2015 Australian Final - ??
*CAREER SLAM FINALS - ACTIVE*
23...SERENA WILLIAMS (18-4)
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
10..MARIA SHARAPOVA (5-4)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
4...Victoria Azarenka (2-2)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)
*AUSTRALIAN OPEN FINALS - ACTIVE*
6...SERENA WILLIAMS (5-0)
4...MARIA SHARAPOVA (1-2)
2...Victoria Azarenka (2-0)
1...Ana Ivanovic (0-1)
1...Venus Williams (0-1)
1...Dominika Cibulkova (0-1)
*OPEN ERA SLAM SINGLES FINALS*
34 - Chris Evert
32 - Martina Navratilova
31 - Steffi Graf
23 - SERENA WILLIAMS
14 - Venus Williams
13 - Billie Jean King
13 - Monica Seles
12 - Margaret Court
12 - Evonne Goolaong
12 - Justine Henin
12 - Martina Hingis
12 - Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
*RUSSIANS IN SLAM FINALS SINCE 2004*
2004 RG - ANASTASIA MYSKINA def. ELENA DEMENTIEVA
2004 WI - MARIA SHARAPOVA def. Serena Williams
2004 US - SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA def. ELENA DEMENTIEVA
2006 RG - Justine Henin-H. def. SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA
2006 US - MARIA SHARAPOVA def. Justine Henin-Hardenne
2007 AO - Serena Williams def. MARIA SHARAPOVA
2007 US - Justine Henin def. SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA
2008 AO - MARIA SHARAPOVA def. Ana Ivanovic
2008 RG - Ana Ivanovic def. DINARA SAFINA
2009 AO - Serena Williams def. DINARA SAFINA
2009 RG - SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA def. DINARA SAFINA
2010 WI - Serena Williams def. VERA ZVONAREVA
2010 US - Kim Clijsters def. VERA ZVONAREVA
2011 WI - Petra Kvitova def. MARIA SHARAPOVA
2012 AO - Victoria Azarenka def. MARIA SHARAPOVA
2012 RG - MARIA SHARAPOVA def. Sara Errani
2013 RG - Serena Williams def. MARIA SHARAPOVA
2014 RG - MARIA SHARAPOVA def. Simona Halep
2015 AO - Serena Williams vs. MARIA SHARAPOVA
*WTA SLAM SINGLES FINALISTS BY NATION - 2010-15*
9 - United States
8 - Russia
4 - Belarus, China
3 - Belgium, Italy
2 - Australia, Czech Republic
1 - CAN, DEN, FRA, GER, POL, ROU, SVK
*BACK-TO-BACK US/AO TITLES - since 1988*
1988-89 Steffi Graf
1989-90 Steffi Graf
1991-92 Monica Seles
1992-93 Monica Seles
1993-94 Steffi Graf
1997-98 Martina Hingis
2002-03 Serena Williams
2003-04 Justine Henin-Hardenne
2008-09 Serena Williams
2010-11 Kim Clijsters
2014-15 Serena Williams ????
*RECENT BEST AMERICAN WOMEN'S SLAM RESULTS*
AO: Venus Williams (3rd)
RG: Vania King & Bethanie Mattek-Sands (3rd)
WI: Serena Williams (4th)
US: Serena Williams (RU)
AO: Serena Williams (4th)
RG: Sloane Stephens (4th) & Varvara Lepchenko (4th)
WI: Serena Williams (W)
US: Serena Williams (W)
AO: Sloane Stephens (SF)
RG: Serena Williams (W)
WI: Sloane Stephens (QF)
US: Serena Williams (W)
AO: Sloane Stephens & Serena Williams (4th)
RG: Sloane Stephens (4th)
WI: L.Davis, M.Keys, A.Riske, S.Williams, V.Williams (3rd)
US: Serena Williams (W)
AO: Serena Williams (in final)
TOP QUALIFIER: Renata Voracova/CZE
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #7 Genie Bouchard/CAN
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1 - Renata Voracova/CZE def. #17 Zhu Lin/CHN 5-7/7-6(5)/6-2 (saved MP in 2nd set)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS d. (Q) Alexandra Panova/RUS 6-1/4-6/7-5 (saved 2 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - Madison Keys/USA d. #4 Petra Kvitova/CZE 6-4/7-5
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): xx
TOP LAVER/MCA NIGHT MATCH: Nominee: 4th Rd. - Keys/USA d. #4 Kvitova/CZE 6-4/7-5
FIRST VICTORY: Julia Goerges/GER (def. #32 Bencic/SUI)
FIRST SEED OUT: #32 Belinda Bencic/SUI (lost 1st Rd. to Goerges/GER)
UPSET QUEENS: Germans
REVELATION LADIES: French
NATION OF POOR SOULS: China (year after Li wins title, 1-5 in 1st Round)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Lucie Hradecka/CZE(3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Chang Kai-Chen/TPE, Oceane Dodin/FRA & Irina Falconi/USA (all 2nd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Casey Dellacqua, Jarmila Gajdosova, Samantha Stosur & Alja Tomljanovic (all 2nd Rd.)
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
IT (??): [Madisons] Madison Keys/USA & Madison Brengle/USA
COMEBACK PLAYER: Victoria Azarenka/BLR
CRASH & BURN: #5 Ana Ivanovic/SRB (lost 1st Rd. vs. qualifier Hradecka/CZE; one of eight seeds to lose on Day 1)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Maria Sharapova/RUS (2nd Rd.: saved 2 MP vs. Panova/RUS)
KIMIKO DATE-KRUMM VETERAN CUP (KDK CUP): Venus Williams/USA
LADY OF THE EVENING: Genie Bouchard/CAN (2-0 in night session matches on MCA, with her Army serenading her from the stands)
DOUBLES STAR: Nominees: Mirza/IND; Hingis/SUI; Mladenovic/FRA; Mattek-Sands/Safarova (USA/CZE); YJ.Chan/TPE
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Nominee: K.Swan/GBR; D.Galfi/HUN; Minnen/BEL
All for Day 11. More tomorrow.