by Steve Flink
When Maria Sharapova unexpectedly won Wimbledon at 17 in 2004, I watched her last three victories of that event with much admiration. Her 6-1, 6-4 final round triumph over Serena Williams was an exhilarating piece of business. Serena was trying to win a third straight crown on the Centre Court, but the precocious Sharapova was undaunted by either the occasion of her opponent. Two years later, at the 2006 U.S. Open, Sharapova finally collected her second major crown, taking apart Justine Henin in a straight set final. That was another outstanding performance.
But during this 2008 Australian Open, Sharapova seems to have moved to another level altogether. I believe her 6-4, 6-0 victory over the top seeded Henin in the quarterfinals was undoubtedly the best tennis match she has ever played. I stayed up all night to watch the match live on ESPN, fully expecting a hard fought, three set encounter. It was astounding to see Sharapova administer such a severe beating on a woman who has finished the last two years at No. 1 in the world, on a champion who always seems to figure out a way to win no matter what the circumstances. Henin was riding the wave of a 32 match winning streak, and had not lost a match since a stunning semifinal defeat at Wimbledon against Marion Bartoli last July.
The fact remained that Sharapova knew she was ready for this appointment. She had handled a challenging draw with absolute professionalism, crushing three-time former Grand Slam tournament champion Lindsay Davenport in the second round with utter ease. To be sure, Davenport is trying to find her range since making a surprise comeback last year, but the 31-year-old Californian had still won three of the four tournaments she had played. Sharapova was dazzling in that encounter, and she moved through to the last eight without the loss of a set.
And yet, the 20-year-old Russian had only beaten Henin twice in eight previous head-to-head collisions. On top of that, she had played brilliantly against the Belgian in the final of the 2007 season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid, but still came up on the short end of a 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 score line in a match lasting nearly three-and-a-half hours. Sharapova threw everything she had at Henin in that gripping and high quality clash, but still could not prevent the world champion from prevailing in the end.
This time around, Sharapova was striking the ball with awesome pace and precision from the outset. She never allowed Henin to settle into any kind of rhythm. Sharapova was taking the ball incredibly early, moving Henin around at will, dictating the rallies with breathtaking regularity and skill. Her two-handed backhand was almost letter perfect, both down the line and crosscourt. Her forehand— clearly the weaker side— hardly ever let her down, and Sharapova was getting around the outside of the ball and whipping that stroke with uncanny accuracy. And she mixed up her serve remarkably well, making Henin look like she had no clue on the return.
The first set was beautifully played by both players. Sharapova got out of the blocks in style. She raced to a 3-0, 0-30 lead, winning 14 of 17 points in the process. Henin has seldom seemed more helpless on a tennis court since she reached the upper echelons of the game seven years ago. She simply could not prevent Sharapova from completely setting the tempo. But the top seed willed her way back into the set. Despite the onslaught of big hitting coming at her relentlessly from Sharapova, Henin held on gamely for 1-3, saved a break point on her way to 2-4, and then struck back boldly from 2-5.
That was no mean feat. Sharapova was serving with such potency and accuracy that she had lost only four points in four service games. But when the Russian served for the opening set at 5-3, Henin refused to surrender. She changed pace adroitly in that game and secured her only service break of the match as Sharapova began missing off her two-hander. Now serving at 4-5, Henin saved a set point and then reached game point for 5-5, only to be left stranded by a scorching inside-out backhand from the Russian. Henin saved a second set point by stepping up the pace of her ground game, provoking a mistake from Sharapova with a penetrating crosscourt forehand. Henin saved another set point to reach deuce again, but Sharapova would not let go. She played a superb half volley to set up a backhand down the line winner, and then sent a dipping backhand passing shot at the feet of Henin, who could not handle it.
Sharapova had the set in 61 minutes. But seemingly Henin had sunk her teeth into the contest, and would make a real go of it the rest of the way. Sharapova had very different ideas. She could do no wrong and Henin was throttled in many ways, unable to shape a strategy to contain the flowing Sharapova, who is covering the court now much better than she ever has before. Not since 2002 at the French Open had Henin lost a love set at a major. Sharapova closed out the account on a run of seven straight games.
She will face Jelena Jankovic in the semifinals. The No. 3 seed upended No. 7 seed and defending champion Serena Williams 6-3, 6-4 in her quarterfinal. No one saw that coming. To be sure, Serena was listless and out of sorts. She lost her serve seven times in the two sets, never really found her range off the ground, and was not the same player who had come into the last eight without the loss of a set. Serena had served with immense consistency and conviction in her four triumphs leading up to the Jankovic match, but the Serbian is a resourceful and wily competitor who played her finest match of the tournament. She picked Williams apart with admirable strategic acumen.
Sharapova should beat Jankovic to reach her second Australian Open final in a row. After a distressing 2007 campaign when her shoulder was never quite right, Sharapova is healthy and confident again. She has a serious opportunity to win this tournament if she maintains her extraordinary level. I like her chances to record two more match triumphs and come away with a third career Grand Slam championship.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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