Friday, January 26, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine vs. Dreamgirl

Australian Open Women’s Final Preview


by Mad Professah

The dream Women’s Australian Open Final. A revenge match between World No. 1 and No. 1 seed Maria Sharapova (RUS) and former No. 1 but currently unseeded (ranked No. 81 in the world at the beginning of the tournament but in the top 20 after it) Serena Williams (USA). Head-to-head the two are tied 2-2, although they have not played each other since Serena eked out a 2-6, 7-5, 8-6 win almost exactly two years ago in the 2005 Australian Open semifinals, saving three match points in the process, even though Sharapova served for the match in both the second and third sets. This was one of the best WTA Tour matches of 2005 and tonight’s rematch is expected to surpass that epic battle for drama, suspense and import.

The 2007 Australian Open has been a revelation for Serena Williams watchers. Despite only having played in four tournaments last year due to a nagging and serious knee injury, Serena was able to “shake off the rust” by improving her play round by round in the first Grand Slam tournament of the year. After cruising through the first two rounds, Serena faced Nadia Petrova, a top 5 player, and came through with a victory despite being one game away from a straight sets elimination. That was her closest test, because not enough rust had come off her game to allow her to play her best tennis, but somehow, magically she was able to come up with brilliance at precisely the right moments to pull her through to the end, like a champion.

In her next round, Jelena Jankovic didn’t play the tennis which had made her the hottest player on tour coming into the tournament, and a resurgent Serena took her out in straight sets. Shahar Peer did an excellent job of pushing Serena by playing tenacious defense and remaining mentally tough enough to earn a match point. Serena calmly played high percentage tennis and won the last 3 games of the match. Against the powerful ball-striker Nicole Vaidisova her level of play had developed to the point where after surviving a close first set, the result of the match was never really in doubt.

Sharapova’s run to the final was nearly ended in the first round where she blew a 5-0 lead in the third set against the wily Camille Pin (FRA) and lost six consecutive games in the over-100 degree Melbourne heat and sun. Sharapova was two points away from a stunning first round loss against an unseeded and unheralded opponent who cooperated by collapsing mentally to allow the No. 1 seed to escape with a 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 win. Sharapova needed intravenous hydration afterwards. By surviving this crucible, Sharapova added to her growing reputation for mental (and physical) toughness. Although her subsequent play has been enough to defeat a trio of Russian players (Rodionova, Zvonareva [22] and Chakvetadze [12]), as well as end the last attempt of Kim Clijsters (BEL)[4] to win her first Australian title with a whimper instead of a bang. However, since that first round, Sharapova has not been pushed, and that will definitely happen against Serena.

In fact, the problem for Maria is that Serena’s play in the final is most likely to be even better than it was in the semifinal and Serena is well-accustomed to facing very hard hitting combined with excellent defence every day (i.e. practicing with Venus) and has played tougher matches than Maria in Melbourne. I believe this will lead Serena to her 3rd Australian title and 8th Grand Slam championship.

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