Australian Open 2014: Resurgent Ivanovic seals shock win over Williams
Australian Open 2014: Serena Williams is beaten as the five-time champion loses to a resurgent Ana Ivanovic
In this most demanding of gladiatorial sports, a one-on-one combat that has no time limit, no winning post, no team-mates to temper the physical and mental stresses, there is always room for an upset.
Yet at this year’s Australian Open, the one thing about which everyone seemed to agree was that Serena Williams’ name would end up on the women’s trophy.
Already with 17 Grand Slam titles, five of them in Australia, she appeared to be the immovable force, especially since her return to the tennis spot-light after life-threatening injury took her out of the sport for a year.
She started 2013 on the back of Wimbledon, Olympic, US Open and WTA Championship victories in 2012, and put together a lifetime-best 34-match streak through Miami, Charleston, Madrid, Rome and the French Open.
Then she made a near clean sweep in the US Open Series, defending her US crown, and as she headed towards her 32nd birthday later the same month, she was confirmed as the year-end No1 for the third time—even before she added the Beijing Premier and a fourth WTA Championships to her tally. 2013, then, proved to be a career best, with more titles—11—and more match-wins—78 for just four losses—than ever before.
It has, then, been rare for this tour de force of a player to lose. Last year, it happened only four times, and two of those matches were against her closest rival, Victoria Azarenka. One was to eventual finalist Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon. And the fourth? Well it happened to be in Melbourne, a year ago.
Having dropped just eight games in four matches, Williams fell to the impressive young American, Sloane Stephens in three tough sets—but there was no getting away from the fact that Williams was carrying an ankle injury.
So what were the chances for No14 Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round this year? After all, Williams had conceded only 12 games in three matches, and had already beaten Maria Sharapova and Azarenka to take the Brisbane title. She also came into her fifth meeting with the Serb knowing that she had never so much as dropped a set let alone lost a match to Ivanovic.
I didn’t think much about the occasion and who I was playing
But Melbourne was just about to see history repeat itself, for two reasons.
On Williams’ side, the tennis powerhouse of the last 18 months did not look her robust self. And on Ivanovic’s side, the woman who had reached just one Grand Slam quarter-final since winning her solitary Major at the French Open in 2008, was returning to some of the best form of her career. Apparently thriving with her new all-Serbian coaching team, looking fit and confident, she started the year with the Auckland title, her first since 2011. Then she showed real resolve to come back from a set down against No17 seed Sam Stosur.
When Ivanovic lost the first set, 6-4, it looked initially as though Williams had her usual grip on the match, but this new, mature Ivanovic summed up how she turned it around: “I just think I stayed in the moment physically. I didn’t think much about the occasion and who I was playing, because it can get overwhelming. I just stuck with my things and it really paid off.”
It started typically enough for Williams—with her 27th ace of the tournament. She followed it with an off-backhand winner. Surely the rumours of a back problem were ill-founded? But three winning shots from Ivanovic saw Williams barely attempt to chase them down, and the American faced an immediate break point. That defended, she faced another after a double fault, and then a third.
The next hint that all was not well came in Williams’ second service game, a weak smash into the middle of the net. And while the American looked subdued around the court, Ivanovic was full of energy and intent, chasing in for the attack at every opportunity. The Serb’s return of serve sizzled, and she pressured Williams on every point. She notched up another break chance in the fifth game with her fifth forehand winner—Williams had made none—and took a shock lead.
It did not last long, as Williams responded in kind with outright return winners, and a double fault from Ivanovic gave Williams the break back. A run of errors from the Serb serving at 4-5 brought the most animated body language of the match so far from Williams, and the American broke for the set, 6-4. But the stats proved as much as the tennis that this had been a closely fought set.
Certainly Ivanovic was not deterred. She continued her confident attacking game-plan to make 15 winners against Williams’ nine in the second set—seven of which were aces—and showed some lovely touch at the net more than once. It was such a net attack that converted a break point in the fifth game.
Ivanovic had chances to break again in the seventh but waited until the ninth to break again for the set, 6-3.
By now, the Rod Laver arena was in full voice. Ivanovic has always been a popular player, but she is an adopted daughter here, too, with relatives based there. The home crowd also warmed to this confident, attacking, all-court tennis from the Serb, but could she really keep it up in the decider?
By now, Williams seemed to be struggling physically, lacking her usual energy: A third set was the last thing she needed. She could not deliver on serve—just two aces in the set—or on her forehand—a staggering one winner off the ground in the entire set. Ivanovic needed only to keep up the pressure, and she did so admirably, as a 31st winner earned a break point in second game. She converted it with a winning return of serve.
That proved to be decisive and Ivanovic served out a famous first victory over Williams, 6-3. She took a standing ovation, and summed up the achievement afterwards:
“I had to break a fourth-round spell—what better place to do it than here against such a champion?”
In this form, the woman who was briefly No1 almost six years ago has every chance of reaching her first Grand Slam semi since. She will face the not-dissimilar game of another popular young woman just making her own run into the big-time: Eugenie Bouchard took out Australian Casey Dellacqua, 6-0 in the third set.
At the other end of this half of the draw, though, it was the mature women who survived the younger challenge. Na Li, finalist here last year, was imperious against the No22 seed, Ekaterina Makarova, making 18 winners in a 6-2, 6-0 match lasting a bare hour.
And next, Li will take on a woman just a day older than herself. Italian Flavia Pennetta will turn 32 on 25 February, Li the day after, and like Li she has been a late bloomer.
Pennetta’s doubles career once used to outshine her singles—she was doubles champion in Australia in 2011 and runner-up in New York in 2005—but no longer. Her biggest singles successes came at the US Open where she first reached the quarters in 2008. But last year, returning from wrist surgery that actually forced her to miss the 2013 Australian Open, she reached her first Grand Slam semi, also at the US Open.
Having broken the top 10 for the first time more than three years ago, Pennetta not surprisingly dropped out of the top 40 for the start of 2013 but climbed her way back to a seeding of 28 in Australia. Now she has beaten the No9 seed, Angelique Kerber, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5, to reach her first Australian quarter-final.
It was a win that showed off her multiple attacking skills, with 43 winners and 27 net points, and brought some revenge for Pennetta for her losses to Kerber at both previous Grand Slam meetings.
She said afterwards: “I am really happy. I am shaking. I am a little old, so I am enjoying it so much.”
Australia, and many more around the world, will certainly relish the chance to watch the two 31-year-olds who compete for that precious semi place against Ivanovic or Bouchard.