Wimbledon 2016: Can Vesnina and Kerber halt the dream Williams final?

Serena Williams and Venus Williams will compete for a place to face each other in the Wimbledon 2016 final

It has all came around so quickly. Just three days ago, the women’s draw seemed to be in some kind of limbo where matches that should have been completed days before were still dodging the showers on outside courts.

By a sunny Tuesday morning, though, and against the odds, the 128 had been whittled down to the final eight, the women’s quarter-finals. Some expected faces had fallen by he wayside—former champion Petra Kvitova and French Open champion Garbine Muguruza among them.

But it was no surprise, perhaps, to see a familiar name at the top of the draw: Serena Williams, world No1 for the last three years, defending champion, and still in hot pursuit of a record-equalling 22 Majors.

Perhaps no surprise either that four of the other contenders were either Major champions or finalists.

Simona Halep, seeded No5, reached the final of the French Open in 2014, the same year that No19 seed Dominika Cibulkova made the final of the Australian Open.

Then there was Angelique Kerber, seeded No4, and reigning Australian Open champion. She was joined by another familiar face, though the remarkable 36-year-old Venus Williams, five times a Wimbledon champion, had not made the quarter-finals since 2010.

However perhaps it was a surprise that Serena Williams was the only woman among the eight to have been a quarter-finalist last year, too—and to have been a quarter-finalist at the last Major, the French Open.

Perhaps a surprise, as well, that the other three women left standing were all into the Wimbledon quarters for the first time, and that only one was even a seed, No21 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Yaroslava Shvedova, at 96, was the fifth lowest ranked woman ever to make the quarters here. At 28 years old, she was making her 10th appearance at Wimbledon, but in her entire career she had never met her formidable opponent today, Venus.

Shvedova had already dispensed with two seeds, and she put up a mighty challenge in the 63-minute first set here, too. After an exchange of breaks, they headed to a tie-break, and after going 3-5 down, Venus strung together four points for the set, 7-6(5).

But the second set went by in a flash after more initial breaks on both sides. Williams, looking fitter and stronger than in many a year at Wimbledon, advanced, 6-2.

She will next face Kerber, who beat Halep, 7-5, 7-6(2), to reach her first semis here since 2012. It was an unpredictable match in many ways, with repeated breaks before Kerber held in the first set to edge the advantage. Halep came alive at 3-5 down in the second set, levelled with some scintillating passes, only to buckle in the tie-break with a string of errors.

Elena Vesnina, ranked 50 and playing her first Major quarter-final anywhere, played the woman with arguably the best grass form of the season. Cibulkova arrived here with the Eastbourne title, and with her run to the quarters, had compiled a nine-match grass win streak. She also led the women’s tour with 33 wins, but in their only previous grass-court match, here in 2009, Vesnina won in three tough sets.

However, perhaps the 5ft3in Cibulkova’s main problem would not be her opponent but fatigue: It had taken her over three hours and an exhausting 9-7 final set to beat Radwanska the day before. And so it seemed. After just 76 minutes, Vesnina had converted her first Major quarter-final into her first Major semi-final, 6-2, 6-2.

Now the Russian could only wait to see who she would play in the semis. The chances were always strong that it would be Serena Williams. After all, the mighty American had beaten Pavlyuchenkova in all five previous matches, and conceded only one set along the way.

Six-time champion Williams faced an early challenge here against Christina McHale, losing the first set before fighting back to win in three. Svetlana Kuznetsova was expected to give her problems, too, but after a competitive opening set, Williams blasted to the win, 6-0 in the second, with 43 winners to just 14 unforced errors.

Asked about her intensity on court ahead of her quarter-final, Williams’ answer showed that all her years at No1, all her Majors, all her records, despite now being 34, have not dampened her desire for more.

“It’s no secret, I’m a very intense player. I’m so passionate at my job… this is what I do, and I love what I do. I wake up since I was three years old to do this. These are the moments that I live for. The passion and the intensity that I have are what make me Serena. I can’t change, nor would I ever want to be different.”

And every ounce of that passion was written in her tennis against Pavlyuchenkova, though the Russian attempted to give as good as she got. There was not a lot between them as they edged to 4-4, but with perfect timing, Williams struck to break to love in the ninth game and held to love to the familiar soundtrack when she is on her game: An awestruck murmur.

The closest Pavlyuchenkova came to encroaching on Williams’ serve was in the fourth game. It began with an 117mph ace, but went to deuce with a double fault. However two aces—one topping out at 118—snuffed out the chance. Indeed Pavlyuchenkova never worked a break point in the match, Williams again broke in the ninth game, and served out the match with a 123mph ace.

Vesnina called her semi-final against Serena “a dream match”, and it is entirely possible that she and the friend she beat in the fourth round in singles, Ekaterina Makarova, could play another “dream match” against the Williams sisters: Both sets of players had to follow their singles today with doubles, with a quarter-final meeting beckoning.

But looking a couple of days hence, the match that most are discussing is the women’s final. For if Serena and Venus can beat, respectively, Vesnina and Kerber, that would set the ultimate “dream match” between the sisters, best friends and oldest rivals.

Six times they have met at Wimbledon—most recently last year in the fourth round—and four times in the final. Few thought such a final would be possible again: Yes, it really would be a dream final.

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