If you were in Melbourne on Sunday afternoon and you became very quiet and listened very carefully, you might have heard a sigh of relief. That would have come from Maria Sharapova, whose worst nightmare--facing Serena Williams in a major final--is not going to occur. Ana Ivanovic settled that matter by upsetting Williams in the Australian Open round of 16.
Not that Sharapova can dance to the final--she still has to face Dominika Cibulkova before she can even begin to think about the final, and there are more hazards ahead for her, should she get past Cibulkova. Sharapova, I think, is quite vulnerable, but at least what must be her most dreaded scenario will not come to pass.
Ivanovic beat Williams 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, and Williams' loss is open to a number of interpretations. Yes, she was moving below her usual standard. And after her coach blabbed to the press (tacky, that) that she had hurt her back, it became clear that her movement was indeed hampered by injury. But Williams has played through injury before and beaten her opponents, and especially those opponents who are not that strong in the head department--players like Ana Ivanovic.
One can conjecture that having a locked back is worse than having a leg injury or a shoulder injury. Who knows? Williams managed to hit 13 aces. One thing, however, is certain: Ivanovic played at her peak level. She was returning everything with power and finesse, and calmly engaging Williams in long rallies, using her slice to keep Williams on the move for a longer time than she probably wanted. The Ivanovic forehand finished the job again and again. The Serbian player's serve was working really well, too. She told ESPN that she had not just worked on her serve, but that she had worked on her mentality about her serve.
The 14th seed gave us a preview of her performance when she defeated Sam Stosur, another big server. With both her return game and her service game cooking at high levels, Ivanovic forced us to remember that inside her somewhat shaky court persona lives the 2008 French Open champion. It was a masterful performance by an obviously more level-headed Ivanovic.
The most amazing thing about Sunday's competition was that Ivanovic wasn't the only player who stunned on the court. Li Na, who has been walking on the edge for the past week, all but blacked out Ekaterina Makarova's appearance in Hisense Arena. Poor Makarova probably didn't even know what hit her. For the entire match, which lasted just short of an hour, the Russian couldn't even get her foot in the door. Li served so well, and hit her backhand so well, that Makarova was reduced to the status of victim.
Of course, this is Li Na. She could win the Australian Open, or she could take another trip to Na Na Land. She'd better be sharp in the next round because she has to face Flavia Pennetta, against whom she has a 2-2 record. Pennetta--Queen of Fed Cup, Queen of Career Comebacks (this is the third major one that I can recall), the woman who put the fight in Fighting Italian--took out 9th seed Angelique Kerber in the round of 16 in an entertaining, and sometimes exciting, match that went three sets. And in the first set, which Pennetta won 6-1, the Italian gave a Li Na/Ana Ivanovic kind of performance. What has the heat done to these players?!
Meanwhile, Shahar Peer and Silvia Soler-Espinosa, not content just to take out Hsieh and Peng, advanced to the doubles quarterfinals by defeating Lucie Hradecka and Michaella Krajicek.