Yesterday, in the third set of her Australian Open semifinal match against Petra Kvitoa, Maria Sharapova--serving at 4-all, 0-30--hit a shot that was called out, giving Kvitova three break points, and a chance to serve for the match. Only the ball wasn't out, and Sharapova knew it. She immediately challenged and was validated, and that was the beginning of the end for Kvitova. In her press conference, the Czech player said she didn't remember the challenge--I'm sure it had all become just a blur for her--but that moment obstructed her momentum, and a short time later, she was out of the Australian Open. Sharapova took the match 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.
I decided last night not to make any notes on the matches, but rather, to just relax and enjoy them. I encourage you to check out Todd's excellent play-by-play analyses of both semifinals.
I do have some observations, however. One is that Maria Sharapova's mental toughness got her out of a lot of trouble yesterday. Kvitova was a mess in the first set, but she was once again scary-good in the second, and the third would have been hers if she had had her opponent's mentality. Sharapova had only five break opportunities against Kvitova, but she converted all five, including the crucial one at the end. In contrast, Kvitova had fourteen break opportunities, and converted only three of them.
Another is that Sharapova's movement keeps getting better, and she anticipated many of her opponent's forward moves.
Finally, this was the best singles match I've seen at this year's Open. The tension was high almost from the first strike, and--while both players had difficulty with one thing or another (Sharapova double-faulted ten times)--their very best features were also on display much of the time. It was a nerve game in the end, and Sharapova held hers. (Note to Chris Fowler: Sharapova's gender prohibits her from being the "king" of anything.) The mental aspect of Kvitova's tennis--though much better than in the past--is still a vulnerability. She just can't seem to settle down, and when she gets anxious, she plays way too fast.
The other match was played during the annoying Australia Day air show, and a formation of planes repeatedly flew low toward the court, outdoing the sparrows and seagulls that have been swooping around the players for a week and half. Defending champion Kim Clijsters played Victoria Azarenka, and on ESPN, the fist set was accompanied not only by buzzing aircraft, but by almost non-stop Azarenka-bashing, with occasional match commentary tossed in by Cliff Drysdale and Pam Shriver. (Shriver's comprehension of "irony" is somewhat impaired--there's a real difference between experiencing a highly significant and career-defining moment while working in one's profession, and sitting in a seat enjoying some recreational viewing.)
In the first set, Azarenka put Clijsters under so much pressure, the defending champion began to make what would become a long series of errors. Azarenka won the set 6-4, but lost her way in the second set, when Clijsters dominated 6-1. To the crowd, it probably looked like Aussie Kim was going to walk away a finalist, but Azarenka wasn't finished. She obviously put the second set completely behind her (something she hasn't always been able to do), and won the deciding set 6-3.
The pair broke each other four times, and Clijsters ended the match with one more point than Azarenka. But it didn't matter because Azarenka did what the best players do--she won the big points, when it really counted.
2008 champion Sharapova and Azarenka have played each other six times and have split the victories three and three. On hard courts, they've split the victories two and two. Here is a look at their paths to the Australian Open final:
MARIA SHARAPOVA (4)
round 1--def. Gisela Dulko
round 2--def. Jamie Hampton
round 3--def. Angelique Kerber (30)
round of 16--def. Sabine Lisicki (14)
quarterfinals--def. Ekaterina Makarova
semifinals--def. Petra Kvitova (2)
VICTORIA AZARENKA (3)
round 1--def. Heather Watson
round 2--def. Casey Dellacqua
round 3--def. Mona Barthel
round of 16--def. Iveta Benesova
quarterfinals--def. Agnieszka Radwanska (8)
semifinals--def. Kim Clijsters (11)