Gold Rush (VI): Preview of Saturday at the Olympics
Sharapova vs. Serena (gold/silver): When the dust settles on this tournament, the tiny, elite club of career Golden Slam champions will expand to encompass another member. From all appearances, Serena will earn that honor in this final stage of her career. Not only has she demolished the competition with alarming efficiency through five rounds, but she has established a stranglehold over what once promised to evolve into one of the WTA’s most scintillating rivalries. After Sharapova defeated Serena on two prestigious stages in 2004, the finals of Wimbledon and the year-end championships, the American restored her supremacy with seven consecutive victories. Only one of those seven meetings branded itself on history as a memorable thriller (the 2005 Australian Open semifinal), while several have resulted in resounding routs. Influenced in part by Sharapova’s shoulder injury and her ensuing struggles on serve, these non-competitive character of these collisions also has illustrated Serena’s overall superiority at essentially the same playing style and tactics. A more natural athlete with by far the most impressive serve in WTA history, she has succeeded in seizing the initiative from a woman who relies on imposing herself on opponents. Even when Sharapova battled Serena through two extremely tight sets at Wimbledon two years ago, the veteran managed to deliver the first strike on the handful of points that decided their clash. Some have suggested that the14-time major champion resents the peerless endorsement power accumulated by the Russian, enhancing her motivation, although they have maintained a friendly off-court relationship. No matter the reason, Sharapova simply seems to trigger Serena’s most stunning tennis.
This week, though, the Wimbledon champion already has triggered her most stunning tennis. Even if Jankovic, Zvonareva, and perhaps Wozniacki no longer pose the threats that they once did, especially on this surface, Serena’s refusal to permit any of them more than four games in terse victories signaled her determination to the rest of the draw. Perhaps acknowledging the inevitable, Azarenka mustered scant resistance against a champion whom she had troubled before. But Serena has looked as effortless at the Olympics as she looked effortful en route to the Wimbledon title, striking winners almost casually while staying relatively calm. Far from calm in her matches, by contrast, Sharapova has pulsated with a ferocious energy when hunting the medal that she long has coveted. Her single-mindedness may have contributed to her futility against Serena over the last eight years, for the Russian flagbearer does not trouble to adjust in adversity or modulate her game to an opponent. On this occasion, though, no adjustment likely will ruffle a woman who has dispatched an array of playing styles with equal dismissiveness. Not unless Serena’s serve and nerve suddenly waver, as they did midway through the Wimbledon final, can Sharapova threaten to rewrite the script in her first Olympics and her opponent’s last. While a silver medal will look elegant around the glamorous Siberian’s neck, a career Golden Slam would provide a fitting capstone to the career of this generation’s greatest female player.
Azarenka vs. Kirilenko (bronze): Unlike almost any other type of situation in tennis is the atmosphere of a bronze-medal match, where two players who lost in the previous round earn the chance to win something after all. The relegation round resembles the round-robin format of the year-end championships more than the single-elimination format favored by the Olympics, and it poses a curious mental test for two women hoping to rebound overnight from authoritative defeats. Crushed by Serena more emphatically than usual, Azarenka may not have felt particularly surprised or disappointed by an outcome that seemed a foregone conclusion, nor can Kirilenko feel overly dismayed by a loss to a clearly superior compatriot in her semifinal. In fact, the often neglected Russian must have surpassed her expectations from before the tournament by earning the opportunity to play for a medal, and a bronze surely would more than satisfy her. Also seeking her first Olympic medal, Azarenka might have set her sights higher than Kirilenko as the world #1, but any trip to the podium would represent a noteworthy accomplishment for Belarus, which accumulates medals only sparsely. (Of course, she also will contend for a medal in mixed doubles with Belarussian flagbearer Max Mirnyi, and Kirilenko might find herself in another bronze-medal match, partnering Petrova.)
After the Russian won their first two meetings in 2006-07, Vika leveled the rivalry with a pair of victories two years ago, since when they have not played. In the final of the Moscow Kremlin Cup, almost a home tournament for both women, Azarenka proceeded past Kirilenko to the title uneventfully on a relatively fast surface. Never have they met at a major or any tournament more prominent than the Rogers Cup, but the reigning Australian Open champion has compiled much more experience at these stages than has the Russian. In contrast to the gold-medal match, plenty of extended baseline rallies should develop between two players who lack overwhelming first-strike power, although Azarenka should threaten Kirilenko’s serve consistently with her penetrating returns. Much depends on Vika’s own serve, which could carry her to a resounding triumph if it holds firm or could plunge the match into a cascade of breaks if it falters, as it has sporadically here. Either way, two Russian-speaking blondes will ascend the medal podium in women’s singles one edition of the Games after three of them did in Beijing.