Bright Lights, Big City (XII): US Open Day 12 Preview
Whereas the men’s draw features three semifinalists who never have won a major, three of the women’s semifinalists have won a major title this year, and the fourth reached a major final. Echoing the Australian Open, three of the top four women in the world have survived until the penultimate round, suggesting that the WTA may have begun to crystallize from its recent chaos.
Azarenka vs. Sharapova: Only once in 32 hard-court matches this year has the world #1 left the battlefield without her fist raised high and her eyes glaring defiance. Far from a fan favorite at most venues, Azarenka drew energy from the animosity that often hovered above her matches during the four-title surge with which she began this year. Among the most impressive elements of that span was her dominance of leading rivals, including two commanding victories over her semifinal opponent here. First at the Australian Open and again at Indian Wells, Azarenka limited Sharapova to a handful of games as she had in the 2011 Miami final. When she withstood the first fierce blow from the Russian, the Belarussian relied on her natural athleticism and crisper technique to win the vast majority of rallies that lasted more than a few strokes. Only an outstanding performance by Sharapova in both serve and return, it appeared, could fluster an opponent who thrived on her rhythmic pace while striking a steadier balance between aggression and margin. On the clay of Stuttgart, the four-time major champion flipped the script by excelling in the two departments just mentioned, throttling Azarenka with deep, accurate first serves and thrusting her onto the back foot with equally precise returns. Meanwhile, the hostility already present in their rivalry heightened a notch with the curious collision between them at a changeover. In the first semifinal, therefore, viewers can expect to see two women firing baseline missiles relentlessly at each other with malice rooted in their hearts.
Uneven in her last two rounds against Petrova and Bartoli, Sharapova must seek to open this match more assertively and deliver a complete effort from start to finish similar to those on which she built her surges to the Roland Garros title and Olympics silver medal. She has lost before the final only three times in 2012, accumulating a perfect record in semifinals, but that success has stemmed as much from her unparalleled grittiness as from pristine form. Her least prolific major in general, the US Open rarely has inspired her best tennis outside a spectacular fortnight in 2006. Never even a quarterfinalist here before this year, Azarenka cruised through her first four matches with the bulletproof poise of a veteran champion. Curiously, she then echoed Sharapova’s rollercoaster against Petrova in a quarterfinal during which she squandered multiple leads—some substantial—and survived largely because of how she responded to a ball that trickled over the net in an awkward place. Improvising a deft drop volley off that ball at 5-5 in the decisive tiebreak, the fiery world #1 displayed the instincts and composure that should combine with her hard-court mastery to make her a star in New York for years to come. If both players produce the same quality that they have shown at this US Open so far, Azarenka will secure her ticket to the last women’s match of the Grand Slam season.
Serena vs. Errani: Less intriguing than the other semifinal, this stark contrast of styles pits the best server in the history of women’s tennis against a woman who rose into the top 10 on wits and audacity. Despite the massive rift that yawns between their accomplishments, Errani has accumulated quarterfinal appearances at three majors this year and 17 total victories at the four marquee tournaments. Her unexpected rise to relevance has illustrated that women of a more ordinary size still can compile a sturdy career in the WTA, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary. At her most comfortable on clay, she has emulated Schiavone in translating her momentum there to the hard courts, and her fourth-round victory over Kerber revealed how far tenacity can carry her past a physically stronger rival.
That said, Serena enters this semifinal as the overwhelming favorite based upon her stirring, almost impeccable charge through her quarter of the draw. Although she has not faced anyone more intimidating than Ivanovic here, the legendary champion has shattered each challenge before her with the authority of a competitor still hungry after a Wimbledon title and Olympics gold medal. Winning 23 consecutive games at one stage, Serena has lost four or fewer games in four of her first five victories and has not dropped serve in her last three matches. On the other hand, Errani relies on trading breaks with her opponent, for her serve often fails to crack triple digits and almost never wins free points for her. It might provide free points for Serena, though, who should devastate the Italian’s point-starting shots with her return if she can find her range from the outset. Organizing her matches around holds rather than breaks, the three-time US Open champion will subject Errani to escalating pressure by cruising through her own service games so easily. Although consistent counterpunchers can trouble Serena more than shot-makers similar to her own style, she has not slipped into any of the lulls in New York that she suffered at Wimbledon. Certain to defend doggedly and compete until her last gasp, the plucky Roland Garros finalist probably cannot find any reliable answers for Serena’s single-minded determination and championship experience. Having won only one US Open title since 2003, Serena looks destined to reverse the tide of recent disappointments at her home major.