Wimbledon 2018

Wimbledon 2018: SFs – the top half: Major champs Angelique Kerber and Jelena Ostapenko set first showdown

Angelique Kerber and Jelena Ostapenko will face each other in the Wimbledon semi-finals

The statement was stark: the tournament notes ahead of the women’s quarter-finals said: “For the first time in Wimbledon history, no woman among the top 10 seeds has reached the quarter-finals.”

But nevertheless, the four women left standing in the top half of the draw were not exactly unknown quantities.

Angelique Kerber, the highest remaining seed at 11, and the oldest in this half, age 30, and Jelena Ostapenko, the next seed at 12, and the youngest at 21, were both Major champions.

Daria Kasatkina, also 21, had reached a career-high ranking of 11 this season after some standout results: the finals in Indian Wells and Dubai; the semis in St Petersburg; and the quarters not just at Eastbourne and Madrid but at her first Major, Roland Garros.

Then there was a former Major finalist, Dominika Cibulkova, who just missed out on a seeding when Serena Williams was given a discretionary No25. She was ranked No4 little more than a year ago, but injury took a toll until she began to turn things around this season—two finals in Strasbourg and Budapest. She had a point to prove, and she did, beating seeds Jo Konta and Elise Mertens on her way to the last eight.

The Kerber-Kasatkina clash was highly anticipated indeed: The youngster was steadily accumulating big scalps, among them Major champions Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens, Venus Williams, and Kerber herself. Indeed she was one of only five players in WTA history to have multiple wins over world No1s before her 21st birthday.

Now she played in the quarters of Wimbledon for the first time against the experienced former No1 Kerber, who was runner-up here in 2016—the year she won both her Majors.

Kerber had this year shown great signs of regaining the form and confidence that slipped in the aftermath of her breakout 2016. The title in Sydney, semis in Eastbourne, Dubai and Australia, and the quarters at other big tournaments such as Roland Garros, Miami and Indian Wells, contributed to the best match-winning season among the remaining players, 36-12, though she was closely followed by her Kasatkina.

Most intriguing of all, these two had met six times before, twice already this year, and they had split the results. But their last, on the grass of Eastbourne, was a stunning contest of well over two hours, determined by a final set tie-break in Kerber’s favour.

This match would be just as tight, just as compelling, even though it lasted for only two sets. The left-handed Kerber has a heavy baseline game backed up by great speed, endurance and strength. Kasatkina brings a creative blend of pace, spin, angle and imagination in a far less predictable package, and one that the Centre Court soon took to its heart.

Kerber had to work hard in the first game to hold, but then broke in the second game and held to love, 3-0. The younger player, though, soon settled, rose to the occasion and the crowd, and a swing backhand volley got roars of approval, 2-4.

Then she broke back with a forehand winner, only to throw in a wayward game, including two double faults, to hand the key break to Kerber, who duly held for 6-3.

Kasatkina was not done, though. In the second set, the two women played some extraordinary points, and Centre Court was abuzz with what they saw. The two exchanged breaks for 3-3, then repeated for 4-4, as each attempted to outmanoeuvre the other with drops, angles, extreme slice wide to the backhand wings, and the fans loved it.

Kerber served for the set, only to be broken once more, but in the 11th game, Kasatkina tried one drop shot too many, Kerber tracked it down for the winner and broke again, 6-5. Could she hold this time?

It would take 10 minutes to determine the answer, as time and again Kasatkina faced match point—there would be seven—and brought it back to deuce with some quite magical shot-making. One 25-shot rally will go down as perhaps the finest of the year, as both women scrambled, recovered, slipped over, made drops and angles, before Kasatkina made the error.

Kerber, panting but calm, would finally serve it out, 7-5, but the young Russian threw down a marker: She will be back on this stage.

Kerber put it simply:

“I was running everywhere on the court, she was moving me very much! I was just playing another point—just pushing myself to the limit.”

She may have to do so again when she faces Ostapenko, who has been playing here with the same freedom that won the French Open last year. The young Latvian was no stranger to this part of the tournament either: She went on from Paris to reach the quarters here, and looked formidable in equalling that run this year.

She beat Cibulkova, 7-5, 6-4, to reach the semis for the first time, playing rather as Kasatkina had done in firing 33 winners and just a handful fewer errors. There were plenty of initial breaks of serve, as each went for their shots, but Ostapenko got the key break just before a tie-break looked inevitable.

Ostapenko’s serving was the superior of the two in the second set, and after another exchange of breaks, she held to love to seal the set, match, and a semi-final place.

In the end, then, the seeds held in the top half, with Nos 11 and 12 coming through to face each other for the first time. Would the same be true in the bottom half? It would take a few more hours to find out.

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