Many of us were eagerly anticipating the quarterfinal showdown in Melbourne between Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard at the Australian Open. It was one of those contests that fired the imagination, leading many seasoned observers to believe that inevitably it would be a hard fought battle, with the outcome hanging in the balance from beginning to end. After all, Bouchard pushed Sharapova to the hilt last year in the penultimate round at Roland Garros, giving a sterling account of her backcourt capabilities, playing that match as if she fully believed that she was good enough to topple a renowned adversary at the biggest of all clay court festivals.
Sharapova and Bouchard had not clashed since that memorable afternoon last June, when the Russian rallied commendably for a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 triumph over the Canadian. It seemed entirely possible that this time around at another major, there would be a similarly close showdown for supremacy. Bouchard has grown accustomed over the last year to competing in highly significant matches. After her semifinal debut at a major in Melbourne last year, the prideful and spirited Canadian made it to the same round in Paris before losing that appointment with Sharapova, and then Bouchard reached her first final at a Grand Slam event on the lawns of Wimbledon before bowing against a sublime Petra Kvitova.
Bouchard had more than her share of experience at the big events by the time she stepped on court for her meeting with the 2008 Australian Open victor in Melbourne last night. Both players had an awful lot riding on the outcome of this clash. In the end, however, only one of them was ready to compete at full force, and that was none other than the inscrutable Sharapova, who seemed to sense from the outset that this was going to be a very different match from the one they played on the red clay in Paris. Sharapova signaled from the moment she walked on court that she was firing spectacularly from all cylinders. In this frame of mind, with her immaculate timing, Sharapova was going to be very tough to beat.
She was not going to allow Bouchard to settle into any kind of lasting comfort zone. Sharapova’s ball striking was supremely confident. Her serve was enormously precise and powerful, and she backed it up with a barrage of big hitting off both sides. This was Sharapova at her zenith, shaping her own destiny, taking Bouchard largely out of the conversation, finding her range swiftly, sustaining her lofty standards, and suffering no lapses.
Bouchard served in the opening game of the match, and Sharapova immediately pounced. Her returns were scorching, her timing impeccable, and her execution irrefutably sound. Sharapova moved to 0-30 in a hurry, and then Bouchard double faulted. Down 0-40, Bouchard saved one break point but Sharapova laced a forehand down the line to provoke an error from her opponent. That forehand down the line was singing sweetly all match long for Sharapova, and it was one of the primary keys to her victory. Sharapova had the break at 15, and then held at 15 for 2-0. She had won eight of ten points at the outset of the meeting. Bouchard was overwhelmed, unable to cope with the pace coming off the racket of a commanding opponent, uncertain about how to go about breaking up Sharapova’s excellent rhythm.
Nevertheless, Bouchard held at 15 for 1-2. A pair of well placed first serves that coaxed return errors lifted her to 40-15 and then she got the hold with a running crosscourt forehand setting up a backhand crosscourt winner. That brief surge from Bouchard meant little to a resolute and clear-eyed Sharapova, who promptly held at love for 3-1 with a terrific combination of offense and defense. Bouchard was feeling the weight of Sharapova’s shots as well as the size of her opponent’s reputation. The 20-year-old double faulted into the net to fall behind 0-30 in the fifth game, but she took the next point with a scintillating backhand crosscourt winner off a deep forehand down the line from Sharapova. After reaching 30-30, Bouchard got into a slugfest with Sharapova, and came out on the wrong end of it. A dynamic Sharapova drove a two-hander crosscourt winner into an open space.
Sharapova stood at break point for 4-1, but Bouchard took that opportunity away with a perfectly located first serve down the T. She eventually held on for 2-3 with a body serve to the Sharapova forehand that elicited an error. Twice in the following game, Sharapova was down break point, but Bouchard could not step up to those openings. Sharapova held on for 4-2 with some superb counter-attacking, using a low forehand down the line passing shot to open up a wide avenue for a winning backhand pass down the line. That inspirational play essentially settled the set in Sharapova’s favor.
Bouchard held on for 3-4 before Sharapova soared to 40-15 in the eighth game. Bouchard made a crackling backhand return down the middle that caught Sharapova off guard, and then Sharapova rolled the dice with a big second serve down the T. That gamble turned into a double fault. The score was deuce, but Sharapova remained unshakable. She garnered a third game point and then held with a service winner down the T, drawing a forehand return error from the Canadian. Serving to stay in the opening set, Bouchard saved one set point, but on the second Sharapova defended skillfully again off the backhand, inducing a backhand down the line mistake from Bouchard. Set to Sharapova, 6-3, and deservedly so.
Sharapova was serving extraordinarily well, finding the corners, going into the body, mixing it up intelligently. She held at 30 in the first game of the second set without missing a first serve. Bouchard held for 1-1 after two deuces, saving a break point in that game with one of her finest moments. Bouchard approached on the Sharapova forehand, and the No. 2 seed kept her running passing shot low. Bouchard released an exquisite half volley drop shot for a winner. But the 27-year-old soon moved to 2-1, conceding only one point on her serve, missing just one first serve in that game.
Both players realized how mightily Sharapova was performing, and it was unmistakably revealed in their body language. Bouchard was subdued and almost fatalistic, while Sharapova was imperious and filled with conviction. Sharapova broke at 15 for 3-1 with a stream of superb returns. The pressure she was steadily applying on those returns was eroding any confidence that Bouchard had left. Sharapova briefly lost a bit of her edge, double faulting into a 0-30 deficit in fifth game. But she recovered her self-belief in an instant, exploiting her most successful pattern of the match, swinging her first serve out wide in the deuce court to create the opening for a forehand down the line winner. That play was a Sharapova staple throughout the encounter. She followed with an unstoppable first serve down the T, and then went back to the wide serve and forehand down the line combination. At 40-30, Sharapova’s sturdy defense was all she needed. She surged to 4-1 on a run of four consecutive clutch points.
Bouchard was still competing hard, but realized precisely what she was up against. She held at 15 for 2-4, sweeping four points in a row from 0-15. And yet, Sharapova was hitting the ball too well, keeping Bouchard almost entirely at bay, serving and returning at full efficiency. She held at love for 5-2 with a service winner, a heavy and unanswerable forehand crosscourt, a forehand inside out winner and a big serve that was too much for Bouchard. Serving to stay in the match, Bouchard made it to 40-30, but the depth of the Sharapova backhand brought her back to deuce as Bouchard was caught once more on her heels. Sharapova then unleashed a dazzling forehand down the line return winner to reach match point.
She sealed the win right then and there with another forehand down the line placement into the clear. Sharapova thoroughly earned her 6-3, 6-2 victory, setting up a semifinal meeting with Ekaterina Makarova, who ousted a listless No. 3 seed Simona Halep 6-4, 6-0. The left-handed Makarova played top quality tennis but Halep hardly competed in the second set, which was disconcerting to say the least for her growing legion of followers.
Sharapova has never lost to Makarova, and she will strike down her countrywoman once more in the semifinals. To be sure, there is more intrigue on the other half of the draw as three Americans—Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Madison Keys—are all in the quarterfinals, along with 2014 finalist Dominika Cibulkova. Sharapova, however, will not be thinking too far ahead and will inevitably maintain her tunnel vision. No one in the world of women’s tennis is better at that. She was nearly taken out of this tournament in the second round by qualifier Alexandra Panova. Sharapova saved two match points in that pulsating three set contest with stupendous forehand winners, and since then her form has been increasingly stellar.
When the Australian Open commenced, Sharapova was my pick to win the tournament for the second time. I still believe she will come through. The most burdensome task, of course, would be halting Serena Williams if they clash in the title round match. Serena has somehow been able to produce her best tennis time and again against Maria across the last decade and beyond. Since Sharapova overcame Williams for the second time at the end of 2004, she has lost to her eminent American rival no fewer than 15 consecutive times and she has been beaten in 16 of 18 duels altogether against the world No. 1. But Sharapova is playing some of the best tennis in her distinguished career now. If ever there is a time for Sharapova to move past her disappointments, cast aside her demons and defeat Serena again, this must be it.
Meanwhile, I would like Sharapova’s chances against anyone else in the final if Serena Williams does not get there. My feeling is that Sharapova is peaking propitiously. She is ready to win her sixth Grand Slam tournament singles title, and her second crown “Down Under”. I am looking forward to the conclusion of a tournament that has been intriguing across the board in both the men’s and women’s divisions.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.
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