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Serena Williams out to avenge her sister, while Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez tries to derail the Ivanovic express
At the beginning of the week, no-one could possibly have predicted that the semi-final in the bottom half of the draw would involve Ana Ivanovic and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez
It was always going to be the weaker half of the table by dint of the fact that No.2 seed Caroline Wozniacki was struggling with an ankle injury and No.3 seed and defending champion Dinara Safina had played the grand total of two matches since the Australian Open due to a chronic back injury. Most pundits would have seen a route opening up for the likes of Elena Dementieva, Agnieszka Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka, and then along came Maria Jose and Ana.
The Spaniard is slowly becoming a genuine threat on clay courts, having spent a number of years as a doubles specialist, winning the WTA Tour Championships in Qatar last October with Nuria Llagostera Vives. A surprise quarter-final appearance at Indian Wells in March and a semi-final in Marbella saw her shoot up the rankings, and this week at Rome she has been a stand-out performer, slicing with aplomb and showing the young (and even not so young) generation that tennis should be about variety, flight and touch as opposed to merely bashing the ball to all corners.
And what about her opponent? There was something of the Drew Barrymores or the Macaulay Culkins about Ana Ivanovic’s rise and fall. Poster girl, Grand Slam champion, world No.1 and then a plummet into a black hole of obscurity that took her outside the top 50 as she was unable to win consecutive matches. Fortunately for her, she is proving to be more Barrymore than Culkin, reinventing herself as a serious contender on the back of a much improved service.
She scraped direct acceptance here but this week alone, she has defeated four tough opponents including three seeds (former Slam champions are afforded no sentimental protection due to their former glories – you’re only as good as your past 12 months in this business). What is more, she seems quite relaxed about it. If it continues, it continues. If I lose tomorrow, I’ve still done well and it’s not the end of the world – I’ll come back next week and play well again. Maturity can’t be taught or practiced, it has to be acquired, and this is what Ana seems to have done.
The top half of the draw features a re-run of Thursday’s final quarter-final, only this team, the Williams which Jelena Jankovic takes on will be Serena, not Venus, and the likelihood of a bagel (a 6-0 set) or a breadstick (6-1) at any stage in the game will be considerably less. That is precisely the medicine which the Serbian No.7 seed dished out to the elder Williams sister on Thursday, on a night when Venus mysteriously left her service in the locker room. The harder she tried, the less likely she was to get the ball over the net, and she ended up conceding the worst defeat of her professional career.
For Jankovic, it was the second time in as many days that she had seen off a real threat in less than an hour (after defeating No.11 seed Yanina Wickmayer in the third round), and she has conceded a mere three games in her past four sets after struggling past qualifier Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her opener. The bad news for the 2007 and 2008 champion is that she has slighted the Williams family, and Serena will be out for revenge.
The world No.1 originally intended to miss out on Rome and revel in a whirl of social engagements in New York this week. But the idea of a calendar Grand Slam to go with her Serena Slam (all four Majors consecutively but not in the same year, which she achieved between 2002-2003) must be gnawing away at the back of her mind. She has shaken off the rust of not playing since the Australian Open and has looked more convincing as the week wears on here in Rome. Though she was far from perfect against Maria Kirilenko in the quarter-finals, she broke the Russian’s serve seemingly at will and stepped up a gear whenever she had to. She will have to step up once again on Friday – “after all, family honour is at stake”