Commentary

Glamour girls set for showdown

Updated: March 16, 2012, 2:18 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- With the emergence of Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova as the game's next two power players, it is easy to forget that two former world No. 1 players, Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, are in the semifinals, both finding their way back, suddenly circling each other, both with much to prove.

After Sharapova survived a three-hour, three-set comeback struggle with Maria Kirilenko and Ivanovic dispatched a sluggish Marion Bartoli, the two will play in Friday's Indian Wells final four. In Ivanovic's first and only major, she beat Sharapova in the 2008 French Open as a 19-year-old, 6-2, 6-1. In Sharapova's most recent major title, the 2008 Australian Open, she beat Ivanovic in straight sets as a 20-year-old, a match Ivanovic recalls with heartache. It was the last time they would face one another.

Constantly in the public eye, Sharapova has never really gone anywhere, but having won every major except for the French within a month after her 21st birthday, it didn't appear that winning another major would take four years -- and counting. Surgery and inconsistency and better players obscured her, but Sharapova has climbed her way back to second in the world, albeit with an asterisk. Sharapova has fought hard, appeared in two of the past three majors -- but stumbled badly at the finish line.

Last summer in London, it was Kvitova who demolished Sharapova at Wimbledon 6-3, 6-4. Six weeks ago, Azarenka did the same at the Australian Open, 6-3, 6-0. A finals rematch here with Azarenka is still a possibility, if Sharapova beats Ivanovic and Azarenka can overcome the streaking No. 18 Angelique Kerber.

For Ivanovic, it is fitting that she plays Sharapova, for she has called her past two matches "revenge matches," having beaten Caroline Wozniacki and Marion Bartoli over the past 48 hours. Ivanovic said her top memory of the 2008 Australian Open final was remembering "how much I cried afterward. I actually remember one shot in particular. It still hurts me so much. Silly drop-shot forehand. I know. I was like 'Why? Seriously, why?'

"It was 30-all. I think it was 4-all. I was doing really well, and I was like, 'Just hit it.' Sometimes I try to be too fancy when there's no need for it. … I actually cried all the way home on the plane about that shot. Have you ever seen me do the drop-shot again on my forehand? No. I tried to learn."

She spoke with lightness and laughter, and these victories are satisfying to Ivanovic, but they are much more. She is currently ranked 15th, and until this week had beaten only two top-10 players -- Vera Zvonareva in Beijing in 2011 and Azarenka in Cincinnati in 2010 -- in the past 18 months. And now she has her shot at Sharapova.

"She definitely still has the same style, really aggressive," Ivanovic said. "She goes for that first hit and obviously has a big serve. That, I think, improved in her game as well. It's going to be a tough match."

Yet here in these revenge matches, Ivanovic was strong and decisive, allowing her forehand to dictate and maintaining her confidence even when the events did not fall in her favor. Against Wozniacki, Ivanovic broke through Wozniacki's renowned defense with power, power that Wozniacki couldn't counter.

Against Bartoli, Ivanovic relied on the forehand as well. But unlike Wozniacki, the unorthodox Bartoli -- she of the perpetual motion, the two-handed backhand and forehand -- could hit with Ivanovic. Bartoli approached the ball early, bent low to blast a flat ball without much topspin, but Ivanovic's control of her forehand sideline to sideline was too much for Bartoli to overcome.

[+] EnlargeAna Ivanovic
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesIt seems like a lifetime ago that Ana Ivanovic was the top player in the game.

The Ivanovic comeback was an example of the difficulties of early success, and the determination required to the return. After beating Bartoli (who said she was suffering from the same Coachella Valley virus that felled nine other players this tournament), Ivanovic talked about changing coaches, reducing the number of people who travel with her (just one, her coach), as well as having belief in the strengths of her game.

"Well, it's very hard. They say experience is a good thing and you learn from your experiences, but when you're young and upcoming, you don't have these experiences. You don't know what the consequences are. You just go with it. And other times, it creates a doubt because you think and analyze too much."

Sharapova, by rights, should probably be home right now preparing for Miami. Kirilenko won the first set 6-3, was up 2-0 in the second and then lost her way. Sharapova won four games in a row, escaped the second set, 7-5, and then Kirilenko crumbled. She was penalized a point under the hindrance rule for tapping her racket on the court during the point, and then asking the chair umpire, "Are you aware of the score? Have you ever played?"

It was a classic Sharapova match, rife with power and doubt, wildness and passion. The two combined for 12 service breaks on 30 break chances. Even as Kirilenko folded, down a double-break at 4-0, Sharapova offered her a chance to survive, being broken herself in the fifth game.

Still, the rematch with Ivanovic is set for Friday night.

"We haven't played in so long," Sharapova said. "We're at different stages in our career. We've played some tough matches in the past. She has a big game, big strokes. When she's on, she's really firing."