The eleventh day at Melbourne Park started with Maria Sharapova taking on Ekaterina Makarova in the all-Russian semifinal for the first time since 2009, when Dinara Safina beat Vera Zvonareva in a memorable duel. Unlike that match, the one between Sharapova and Makarova proved a lackluster encounter. Although Sharapova won 6-3, 6-2, she had issues with her start. It is another matter that Makarova couldn’t derive any footage out of the wayward Sharapova in the first 10 minutes of the match. One of the reasons could be; Makarova never felt at ease and the other was related to her poor first service, which Sharapova exploited to the hilt. In the second semifinal, Serena Williams had a tougher and more committed opponent in Madison Keys, a rising star among US women. But despite the teenager’s fighting game in the first set, she couldn’t withstand the onslaught from the 18-time Grand Slam winner. The all-American semifinal had a sensational start as Madison Keys broke Serena straightaway and led 2-0. But Keys had her left thigh heavily strapped that hindered her free movements and that perhaps allowed Serena to ride back in the set. Later, in the second set Keys’ limp became more pronounced and she gave in easily to the charged-up Serena, who romped home with a 7-5, 6-2 victory over her talented compatriot. With Saturday’s final to take place between the two top seeded players in the women’s draw, it would have brought satisfactory smiles on the lips of the tournament committee officials, who decided the tags of no.1 and no.2 seeds for Serena and Sharapova.
Eight day back, another Russian Alexandra Panova, a qualifier held two match points against Maria Sharapova in her second round match. But the second seed came back from the brink and won that match. On Thursday morning, Sharapova was plagued with another slow start as she faced one more Russian challenge in the semifinal. But this time, she was quick to find back her rhythm and inflicted a 6-3 6-2 defeat to Ekaterina Makarova. But the score-line doesn’t tell you how a little bundle of nerve Sharapova became at the very start. When she tossed the ball to serve, height was not right then she committed two double-faults. Next Sharapova sent a straightforward forehand into the net and allowed two break-points to Makarova. It was nothing short of a woeful start for an aspiring champion. But suddenly the no.2 seed came up with a marvelous forehand and saved one break point. But what really rescued Sharapova, was a loose forehand on the next point from Makarova. With that, Sharapova was back to her true self. She won the opening game and then broke Makarova in the next. Though Sharapova was broken in the 7th game, she played a much better game later to secure two breaks of serves for her and took the first set 6-3. With Makarova’s game ridden with errors in the second set, Sharapova won four games in a row to lead by a double break. With her vastly improved backhand by now, she effectively nullified her opponent’s left-handed advantage. It was then only a matter of time before Sharapova ended up a 6-3, 6-2 winner and entered her fifth Australian Open final, the last of which was in 2012.
In the second match Serena Williams too, stuttered early in her match against world no.35 Madison Keys to trail 0-2 as the first set began. Keys displayed a very fine temperament and refused to be overawed by Serena’s stature. But Serena’s patience, experience and focus were too much for the 19-year old. Moreover, Keys’ hobble became a bit prominent as the thigh injury showed its effect. Although Serena broke back to level at 3-3, Keys tried her best to keep her game intact. She reached within sight of a 6-5 lead by taking Serena to deuce. But the top-seed pulled back and kept her serve. The first set was finally decided on the tie-break with Serena playing a smooth game. In the second set, Serena was red hot and despite producing 16 winners, Keys couldn’t match the forceful Serena, who took the set far more easily and emerged victorious at 7-6, 6-2.
The five times champion at Melbourne Park will now meet Sharapova in Saturday’s title match. For the last 11 years, the Russian has never won against Serena and her head-to-head record against the American reads 16-2. But the most important thing is the performance from the player on the day of the match.