Wimbledon 2011: Sharapova and Kvitova power to final
It was youth that triumphed at Wimbledon come semi-finals day at the All England Club in London
It only needed a glance at the protogonists of the last two Grand Slams to show that age and experience were the order of the day in the women’s game.
In Melbourne, Kim Clijsters overcame Li Na in three sets to take her second successive Major. In Paris, the 29-year-old Li took the French title by beating last year’s Roland Garros champion, the 30-year-old Francesca Schiavone.
And although Clijsters was missing from the Wimbledon draw with injury, two former multiple Wimbledon champions were back. Serena and Venus Williams -29 and 31 respectively. Never mind that both had long been absent with injury -they muscled their way into the last 16 and looked better with each game they played.
Yet come the quarter-finals, each of these champions was gone and by the semi-finals, the “matriarch” was Maria Sharapova, still a youthful 24.
The other three survivors were all just 21. It was, in fact, the youngest semi-final day in SW19 since 2003.
And there was one more extraordinary fact – Sharapova was just 17 when she won her first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2004, and whichever of the final quartet went on to win this year’s title, they would become the youngest champion since then.
Sharapova was amongst the favourites here even before the big names -including top seed Caroline Wozniacki -made their exit.
Since shoulder surgery in 2008, she had gradually imposed herself on the rankings, most recently by winning her first clay Premier in Rome and reaching the semis at Roland Garros.
Brimming with confidence and hitting her ground-strokes with formidable power, she passed her 400th match win to reach the semis.
Her opponent there was Sabine Lisicki, awarded a wild card following her successful return to the tour after a lay-off with an ankle injury for much of 2010. Her recent win in Birmingham gave her the longest winning streak on grass of the final quartet.
The powerful German made her mark early by taking out No3 seed, Li, in a thrilling comeback from a set down, and then match-points down in the final set. Her serving brought gasps from the Centre Court crowd when she reeled off four 120mph-plus deliveries in succession.
All the more shocking, then, that she added not a single ace to her tally of 44 for the tournament against Sharapova.
In a match of wayward serving across the board, Lisicki looked a shadow of her former self.
Despite running to a 3-0 lead, largely due to her opponent’s error-strewn play, her bid to become the first female wild card finalist Wimbledon history faltered under the pressure of a Sharapova baseline bombardment that saw the Russian break back and then, at 4-4, break again with dazzling forehands to the wide extremes of the court.
With not a little irony -in a match of 13 double faults from the Russian -Sharapova sealed the opening set with an ace.
Lisicki immediately conceded a break in the second set to go 0-3 down, broke back, only to be broken again.
She had a couple more break chances but Sharapova’s will to win was almost palpable. Her left fist unclenched only to play each point and then slammed against her thigh anew as she fired herself up for the next attack.
Sharapova concluded the match, 6-3, has yet to lose a set and looked, simply, ferocious in reaching the final. That she did so via 13 double faults, more unforced errors than winners and a 48 per cent first serve made it all the more remarkable.
However, all the fire and brimstone in the world will not be enough against her final opponent, Petra Kvitova, unless she cleans up her error-count.
Kvitova overcame Azarenka in three sets to book her place in Saturday’s final
For a woman whose game suits the grass so well, Kvitova has remained under the radar compared with her fellow semi-finalists. Yet she was a finalist at Eastbourne a few weeks back and a semi-finalist at Wimbledon last year.
Back then, she was 62 in the world and is now eight. What’s more she has three titles this year and beat her semi-final opponent in the third round of last year’s Wimbledon and, most recently, in the Madrid final, both times in straight sets.
Her match-up against the highest remaining seed, Victoria Azarenka, was a peach of match, full of accurate and powerful hitting and attack.
With more than a small nod to her childhood idol, fellow Czech Martina Navratilova, Kvitova’s swinging left-handed serve and penetrating backhand soon had Azarenka on the back foot, firing 13 winners to just three errors in a 6-1 opening set.
Azarenka, enjoying her first Grand Slam semi-final after four failures at the quarter-final stage, took advantage of a falling-off in her opponent’s game in the second set and made just one unforced error -though in a sign of too little real attack, just one winner -to take the second set, 6-3.
But the third saw a return of the woman who had lost just 15 games in her first five matches of the tournament, and a return of the outstanding winner-to-error figures of the first set – 13 to three.
The set and match were hers, 6-2 -won by a courageous 40 winners in just over an hour and a half.
Kvitova now faces a woman who trains with a left-hander and who hits winners off her forehand with just as much abandon as herself. Sharapova has also won 16 of her last 17 matches and has the experience of three Majors on which to draw.
But if the young Czech plays with the freedom, power and variety she is clearly capable of, perhaps she can follow in the footsteps of that childhood idol and win Wimbledon.