Williams-Sharapova: A fitting finale
With the four top-ranked women booking a place in the semifinals at the year-end championships in Istanbul, Saturday promised much. However, what resulted instead was a pair of lopsided affairs.
Thoughts on both semifinals and the upcoming final:
Williams saying the right things
It was mission accomplished for Radwanska against Williams: She made it past the hour mark.
Having played a combined eight hours in her three round-robin matches, she had nothing left. When Radwanska kept it close early, tying proceedings at 2-2, it was only because of Williams' generosity. The first six points the Pole won came courtesy of Williams' unforced errors.
Williams' initial disappointment was such that, when she broke for 3-2 with a crisp backhand down the line to effectively end Radwanska's day, she offered a look of angst to her support camp. But she would be untroubled for the rest of the encounter, and, unlike in the Wimbledon final, three sets weren't required.
With the match itself largely uninspiring, what lingered were Serena's words in the aftermath.
She must be mellowing with age because Williams, not always considered gracious, acknowledged to the crowd in a televised interview that she had a "little bit of an advantage," given Radwanska's physical state.
Williams usually doesn't find herself as the fan favorite at tournaments -- sometimes not even in the U.S. -- but that hasn't been the case in Istanbul. Fans have shown Williams love through creative signs and have backed her throughout.
No wonder Williams added, "You guys, I love you so much," placing the emphasis on 'so.' For Serena, Istanbul is no Roland Garros.
Maria the mover
Since shoulder surgery in 2008, Sharapova's serve, once a consistent weapon, hasn't been the same. Yet other areas of her game have improved considerably.
Take her movement, for example.
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Once describing herself as a "cow on ice" when attempting to navigate on clay, Sharapova conquered the dirt and completed her Grand Slam collection at the French Open in June.
On Saturday against Azarenka in a habitual grudge match, Sharapova at times mirrored Novak Djokovic, scurrying and scampering and turning defense into offense.
One point stood out: Holding a break point in the opening game of the second set, Sharapova stretched to the forehand side just to put Azarenka's good serve back in play. As the rally developed, Sharapova executed an off-balance defensive lob that landed near the baseline. Azarenka's reply was short, and Sharapova moved in to crunch a forehand into the corner.
In the first set, too, she chased down a decent Azarenka drop shot and countered with an impressive angled backhand winner.
Azarenka even applauded. True.
As for the Sharapova serve, it more than held up. A high percentage and minimum of double faults (2) helped her cause.
When Sharapova downed Azarenka in Stuttgart, Germany, this year, she was ticked that the world No. 1 took an injury timeout. There was no injury timeout for Azarenka this time, even as she struggled with an apparent thigh injury in the second set. This was a tough week for Azarenka, who scraped past Angelique Kerber, lost to Williams, then overcame several blips to beat Li Na in a late finish Friday.
The handshake was cold. Sharapova subsequently erupted on court in celebration (no dance); Azarenka walked off court holding up one finger -- not that one but her index finger.
It's still frosty between the two of them.
The final: Williams vs. Sharapova
The past eight times they've played, Williams has won. And, in the previous six sets, Sharapova has managed nine games. But here's something for Sharapova to build on: Her most recent victory, in 2004, came at the year-end championship.
Further, Williams, in each of her matches this week, dipped -- for a time. She toiled in the first set against Kerber, battled herself against Li, went missing early in the second set versus Azarenka and was in double digits in unforced errors against Radwanska through four games.
Williams, like Sharapova, though, has won all four of her matches.
Prediction: Williams in three
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