The bottom half brought together two of the most consistent women of the year so far in their third high-stakes match of 2014. The world No2, Li Na, and No11 Dominika Cibulkova were the first players to reach 20 match-wins this season.
The diminutive Cibulkova would make her top-10 debut after the tournament and had beaten four fellow top-tenners already this year.
And while Li had won all six of their previous matches, including the final of the Australian Open, their last match, just a fortnight ago in Indian Wells, went to three tough sets. But Cibulkova had taken a hard route to the semis this week, beating both Venus Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska in three arduous sets. Meanwhile the 32-year-old Li was yet to drop a set.
However, that compelling contest would have to wait for the night session in Miami. First came perhaps the biggest rivalry in the women’s game between two of the most high-profile, highly popular athletes in the world.
It brought together the six-time and defending Miami champion Serena Williams, who was aiming to reach a remarkable ninth Florida final, and Maria Sharapova, five times a finalist, including last year when she lost to Williams.
Indeed of their 17 previous meetings, three had been in Miami, but the omens were not good for the tall Russian. Not only had she lost all of those Miami face-offs but every match in the last 10 years: 14 in a row.
After a couple of early challenges in Miami, Williams looked in typical impressive form, especially in her quarter-final defeat of No9 Angelique Kerber. Sharapova had been tested through the draw, but also had her most impressive win in the quarter-finals in straight sets against Petra Kvitova.
It took Sharapova to her 19th win in her last 22 matches in Miami—but then she was playing a woman with 65-7 record in her Florida home ground. And to add still more weight to the Williams side of the scales, the 32-year-old champion had scored more wins over Sharapova than against any other woman.
It wasn’t easy. Obviously Maria plays really well, and she’s done really well here, so I just decided I had to do a little better, stay focused and make more shots
The Russian put on an optimistic face ahead of the contest, as one would expect of a Grand Slam champion and former No1: “It’s just nice to feel like you’re part of a home crowd with so many friends watching and supporting me. I spent so many years training in Florida and I think because I played so long in these conditions, in the humidity, knowing storms can come in any minute, you adjust to that and understand what goes on. I’ve had nice success but obviously there’s a couple more matches to go.”
It all started perfectly for Sharapova, too. She faced break points in her first two service games but fought them off and, striking big and bold, she took control of the match with a break in the fourth. Another hold of serve and she stood at 4-1.
But now Williams came to party, finding her formidable rhythm and serving groove. She broke back and fought off another break point with a huge serve to level at 4-4.
The pressure, and the depth and power of Williams’ hitting, told on Sharapova. She double faulted to hand a vital advantage to the American who took her chance with alacrity, and a love hold of serve sealed the set, 6-4.
To Sharapova’s great credit, she came out fighting again in the second set and took an even quicker lead. After a gutsy love hold, she broke to lead, 2-0, but it was short-lived. Three times she endured deuce but again nerves gripped her right arm and she double-faulted to concede the break back.
It was, for a few games, a battle of wills: both faced deuce to edge to 3-3 but it soon became clear that Williams’ serving was making real inroads. She held to love to take the lead for the first time in the set—a calm, composed presence compared with Sharapova’s roars to “C’mon” whenever she managed a winner. But the Russian’s determination began visibly to seep away when Williams broke to love and completed a run of 11 points before Sharapova could respond.
Minutes later, and Williams delivered the final blow, a break of serve to take the match, 6-3, and the statistics showed why. Williams had made 21 winners, eight of them from aces, to Sharapova’s 15, but the American’s error count was lower by seven.
Williams admitted she had made a slow start: “It wasn’t easy. Obviously Maria plays really well, and she’s done really well here, so I just decided I had to do a little better, stay focused and make more shots.”
Her victory took Williams to a personal best ninth final, with her next most successful tournaments being her seven finals at Wimbledon and the US Open: “That’s pretty awesome: I didn’t even realise! But I just love playing here in Miami. This is my home. I love you guys!”
Williams will next play either Li—against whom she has a 10-1 lead with the only loss coming in 2008—or Cibulkova—against whom she has won all four previous matches. It’s hard not to be confident of her chances of claiming a seventh Miami title—and who knows how many more titles in 2014.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge