She arrived in Melbourne as the defending and six-time Australian champion and leading the opposition in the rankings by a country mile. Last season was another record-breaker, comprising three Grand Slam titles, and she ended her season on a remarkable 53-3 run.
But she had not played a tournament since her weary semi-final exit at the US Open, had not even managed a complete match at her warm-up event, the Hopman Cup—impeded by inflammation of the knee. Even in practice in Melbourne, she did not look entirely happy, but it did not take long for her to put concerns aside—and raise the usual concerns for her opponents.
She dismissed the dangerous Camila Giorgi, the highest ranked player she could have drawn in the first round, in what proved to be her toughest match of the week. Thereafter, she did not play a seed and did not lose more than three games in a match.
The woman she beat in last year’s final, and a former champion in her own right, Maria Sharapova, arrived in Australia with injury concerns, too, and also missed out on her warm-up event: She pulled out of the defence of her title in Brisbane with an arm injury.
That withdrawal, though, had another more important consequence: It dropped her to No5 in the rankings and, as luck would have it, into an unusually early meeting with her nemesis, Williams. For the tennis gods drew her into Williams’ quarter, and that meant the earliest showdown in a tournament, the quarter-finals, since the summer of 2012.
Even with this scenario over the horizon, there was talk of this perhaps being the Russian’s chance to end one of the most famously one-sided records in tennis: 20 matches played, and Williams had won the last 17 dating back to this very tournament in 2005. Indeed Sharapova had taken just three sets from Williams in more than a decade of losses.
But once Williams was into her rhythm on Melbourne’s courts, those hopes seemed to evaporate as quickly as rain from its hot courts.
Remarkably, Williams sounded more relaxed than ever. She said: “I just feel like I’m really confident in my game right now, not against her or against any other opponent. I’m just really looking at me right now.
“In this situation, I don’t have anything to lose because every tournament for me is just a bonus at this point in my career. So it’s an interesting place to be at.”
She is 34 years of age, and within days of beginning the defence of her title, she was again favourite to equal the Grand Slam record of 22 held by Steffi Graf.
She did, of course, remain wary of her opponent—“she always brings in something new and something special”—and the starry nature of the protagonists, the highest paid and most admired women in tennis, ensured that their match was packed out. But an hour and a half later, it had ended as so often before.
Yet Sharapova began strongly, and took advantage of a string of opening errors from Williams to break immediately, and she held for a 2-0 lead.
Williams faced deuce again, but held and then broke back, 2-2, and her serve began to find its groove. Sharapova fought off three break points in the eighth game for 4-4, and pressed hard to take what may have proved a hugely significant break in the ninth: four deuces and two break points, but a couple of aces got Williams out of trouble.
Sharapova kept up the pressure on Williams’ backhand, but she was punished by two winners on that wing in what would become a no-going-back game: On the fourth break point, Williams made a volley winner to break for the set, 6-4, in a little under an hour.
Sharapova’s hopes after such a tight set, one in which she had certainly had her chances, must have been boosted when the doctor was called to treat Williams. It was, the American later explained, a gastric problem that she had picked up days before.
But a love hold from Williams to open the second set well and truly threw down the gauntlet, and a backhand winner took an early break for 2-0. It was quickly 3-0 as Williams served out to love with an ace, and a break to 15 made it 4-0.
It was 20 minutes into the set, and another ace staved off a deuce game for 5-0 before Sharapova got onto the scoreboard, and the Russian even had a fleeting chance to break back—but a forehand error and the chance was gone. Williams scored her 18th win in a row over one of the best players in the world, 6-1, in an hour and a half.
Williams afterwards credited her opponent: “It was super intense. She’s an incredibly intense, focused player who was No1 and won so many Grand Slams for a reason. When you’re playing someone who’s so great, you have to come out with a lot of fire and intensity.”
That says a lot about Sharapova, but says even more about Williams: as determined and hungry for success now as when she beat the same opponent over a decade ago.
Williams already knew who would face her in the semi-finals, the No4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska—another woman she has dominated since their first meeting in 2008. Eight matches, eight wins for Williams. Just once has Radwanska won a set, in her only Grand Slam final to date, Wimbledon in 2012.
Radwanska sealed her place in her second Australian semi-final with a win over the No10 seed, Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-1, 6-3.
Both women had survived long three-setters in the fourth round, but here the Pole, who had beaten the Spaniard three times in their four matches, took control from the off. She broke in the first game and won the opening set in under half an hour.
The second set was more competitive, and the Spaniard managed two breaks, but Radwanska broke three times, and from 3-3, it was one-way traffic, helped not a little by a huge tally of errors from the Spaniard, 45 by the end of the match.
Radwanska is enjoying a purple patch, of that there is no doubt. Since the US Open, she has won in Tokyo, Tianjin, and the WTA Finals, making the semis in Beijing along the way. And this year, she already has the Shenzhen title. So before the Australian open began, she may have harboured hopes of making inroads into the world No1’s below-par form.
Now, it is hard to see anything other than another victory and another Grand Slam final for Williams.
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BIOGRAPHY: Anthony Martial