Three of the four top-seeded women at the Mutua Madrid Open are poised to make the most of their semifinal berths tomorrow: Serena Williams (No. 1) and Petra Kvitova (No. 4), plus Maria Sharapova (No. 3) and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the outlier.
Sharapova definitely has the most on the line.
As a finalist she’ll overtake Simona Halep at the World No. 2 come Monday morning. Sharapova, though, brushed off concern about her spot at the top of the women’s game.
“To be honest, I don’t even know what the standings are between her [Halep] losing and what I have to to in order to get that back,” Sharapova told the press earlier in the week, after smothering Maria Duque Marino, 6-1, 6-2.
The defending champion does remember the 2014 final against Halep, though.
“It was the first time that I won,” Sharapova recalled. “Every year I was getting a little bit closer; the year before I’d gone to the final. So, it was actually more special because it was a very tough final.”
What made the Russian happiest about that title run? The fight.
“When you win a title and the momentum goes back and forth so many times, and [it] becomes so physical in the end that just one of you could be the winner, you’re just so happy to be that one standing on the podium with the winner’s trophy.”
That about sums up Sharapova’s career: battle to advance round by round, top off with another trophy for the show case.
Today, the former No. 1 made darn sure Caroline Wozniacki wasn’t going to push her around for the third consecutive time. In the zone from the outset, Sharapova wobbled in the second set, but broke late in the third to win, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
“I’m really happy. I lost to her the last two times,” she said on court, remembering losses at the US Open and Singapore’s WTA Finals.
The wins over Wozniacki and Caroline Garcia were vintage “Claypova” victories. They perfectly displayed the hair-line distinction between those that rise and stay at the top of the game, and those that ride the ranking roller coaster.
Garcia’s aggression forced Sharapova to adjust the depth of her ball, and maintain a level of consistency that pulled her through in the end, winning 6-2 4-6 7-5.
“Conditions play a role here,” Sharapova explained on Wednesday. “You have a bit of an altitude. The ball bounces quite high. A lot of her strokes and serves were jumping quite high. It’s tough to hit a flat ball off that. So, you know, consistency is really important against an opponent that’s so aggressive.”
In both matches, Sharapova broke a game from the finish line to earn the win. Experience has taught her well.
“With experience things will start going in her [Garcia’s] favor,” Sharapova said. “And, being in those three-set situations is priceless for the development of someone’s career.
“I always know that things can change within a match. And it’s always really important to, in your mind, know that no matter what happens you’re there until the end.”
Predicting who will make their way through their semifinal is tricky, because past results don’t reflect accurately on future outcomes. However, let’s guess that Sharapova and top seed Serena Williams advance to the Madrid final. At that point, all bets linked to experience and a tough mental game are off for the Russian.
She has not scored a win against Serena in 11 years.
But what’s odd about these two champions is how much they’ve come to look alike over their careers. Maybe not in their stroke style, volley crispness, or serving percentage. But take a look at their on-court gestures. Both scream after notching a critical point, which isn’t odd for any player. Yet they scream with one fist clenched and bent over at the waist. It’s as if they’d won an Olympic Gold Medal. They also glare down whomever is in their entourage box.
Mean and fierce to the end.
These similarities have not translated into wins for Sharapova, however. But her proclivity to win titles on red clay might take her a step closer to upsetting the formidable American.
Last year, after Miami had shuttered its gates and players had flown to Europe for the clay-court season, Sharapova paused, knowing what was coming. She called it ‘a bittersweet moment.’ But she went on to win Stuttgart, Madrid, and Roland Garros, putting together one of the best runs on the slippery surface since Justin Henin.
“Little by little my perception and idea of transitioning to the clay changed,” Sharapova shared with the press. “I’m not sure if there was a physical development on my end where I felt stronger — not just on clay, but overall — or where I felt I could play longer matches and withstand tougher opponents for a longer period of time.
“I really believed I could win the French Open.”
A Williams/Sharapova final would turn the sports world’s head toward women’s tennis — which is always good. These women suffered through three-stters this week and have won through sheer grit and determination. They know how to escape tight situations.
It’s just that the World No. 1 has done it with much more consistency.
“The only thing that motivates me is the fact that I think I love what I do,” Williams told the press yesterday, after a close win over former rival, Victoria Azarenka. “That is the reason I continue to play and why I continue to do the best that I can on a daily basis. If that’s winning, that’s great. It it’s losing, my attitude is a little different. I’ve done a lot of winning in my career, so everything now is just a bonus.”
On the red dirt of Madrid, a rebirth of a rivalry that once was could be the greatest bonus of all.