First Among Russians: Sharapova Overpowers Makarova For Semifinal Berth

Sharapova’s game glowed as much as her hair in a quarterfinal rout.

For the second straight year, Maria Sharapova faced countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova in a rematch of an Australian Open quarterfinal a year ago.  Even more emphatic in the sequel, the world #2 continued her inexorable march deep into the Melbourne draw with a 6-2 6-2 victory that featured little suspense after the first five games.

Carrying the confidence from her upset over Kerber into this match, Makarova started promisingly by varying the placement on her first serve.  She struck a body serve and a serve down the T for winners, while a fine forehand winner contributed to the love hold.  With an ace and stinging forehands, Sharapova held her own game almost as easily.  A double fault thrust Makarova into trouble early in her next game, leading to a pair of break points.  Swinging her opponent wide with a well-angled backhand, Sharapova drew first blood.

Quickly erasing the arrears, Makarova constructed a thoughtful rally around her own sets of angles to mitigate the damage done by her opponent’s first serves.  A double fault by Sharapova took the game to deuce, from where the lefty gained the upper hand in the next two points and finished them with poise.  For the first time this tournament, an opponent had reached 2-2 in a set with the second seed.  The pressure of that situation, minor as it might seem, represented an important step forward for Makarova in her effort to reverse last year’s setback.  But she could not build upon the momentum, yielding a double fault of her own on break point to hand Sharapova the advantage again.

The 2008 champion had struggled with her first-serve percentage during her previous two victories, although it had not cost her then.  Considering Makarova’s more dangerous returning, Maria needed to find a steadier rhythm on her first serve to obtain more convincing holds.  She connected with just enough of them to pull ahead 4-2 in the first set, consolidating the break.  As her own return threatened to make inroads again on Makarova’s serve, the underdog showed fine reactions and timing in retrieving bombs that might have gone for winners against less alert opponents.  Handed a deuce situation with a wild forehand from her compatriot, though, Sharapova set up a break point by painting the same corner with consecutive forehand bombs.  A blistering backhand return earned the insurance break.

Bringing down the curtain on the set was a second-serve ace, her third ace of the match.  Sharapova had won the opening stanza by the same score that she had against Makarova at this stage a year ago.  During a multiple-deuce game to start the second set, she clawed back from 40-15 for the second straight time on her opponent’s serve but needed five break points to secure the early advantage with a punishing forehand.  Midway through that epic struggle, Sharapova even scrambled to retrieve a Makarova laser with her left hand, producing a desperate lob that her compatriot netted.

Angling her serves effectively to keep the lefty off balance, the world #2 raced through another comfortable hold.  At 30-30 in her second service game, Makarova urgently need to avoid a break-point situation, and she fought off the prospect with one of the longest rallies to that stage.  Holding serve when Sharapova missed a second-serve return, she stayed within range.  A love hold from the favorite again left Makarova with a critical service game of her own.  This time, she could not survive it.  After two routine groundstroke misses positioned Sharapova at double break point, the second seed answered a crafty lefty angle with an even more audacious backhand angle that permitted no reply.

Consecutive double faults left her trailing 15-30 in her next service game, but she advanced to 5-1 behind otherwise steady tennis.  The former champion missed two potential winners by inches on the first two points of Makarova’s service game and a third on the last.  While she could have concluded the match with a break had she unleashed those rockets with more accuracy, Sharapova still held a commanding lead.  Her relative inefficiency mattered little as she closed out the match emphatically with an ace on the first opportunity.

Dropping just nine games en route to the semifinals, Sharapova next will face Li Na.  The two highest-earning women in tennis, the Russian and Chinese superstars have collaborated on a strange but intriguing rivalry.  Their latest episode will open play on Thursday afternoon in Melbourne.