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Australian Open women’s quarter-finals preview: Can Sharapova make it tough for Serena?

1.28K   //    25 Jan 2016, 23:24 IST

We are now down to the business end of the season’s first Slam as the first day of the quarter-finals at the 2016 Australian Open is here. The women’s singles draw witnessed a constant exodus of seeds through the first four rounds, yet the last-eight matches promise to be very entertaining.

Two Career Slammers clash in the much-awaited second quarter-final of the day on Tuesday as Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova meet again. Another former champion, Victoria Azarenka has looked very impressive so far and will aim for the semi-finals again.

How will the four matches pan out? We take a look:

(1) Serena Williams vs (5) Maria Sharapova

The numbers are so one-sided that many experts refuse to even call this a rivalry. Of the 20 times that Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have met, 18 times the matches have gone the way of the American. In Slams, the Russian has won only once when she was a lively 17-year-old who took the world by storm by stunning Williams in the Wimbledon final 12 years ago.

That year was the last year Sharapova ever managed to reign supreme over the World No. 1. Since then, it’s been a hammering of 17 consecutive wins by the 21-time Major champion, whose ability to raise her level at crunch moments is second to none.

Yet this clash has a different appeal as two of the world’s biggest female athletes and amazing competitors go head to head in a rematch of the 2015 final. She might not have emerged victorious for the last 12 years, yet Sharapova never stops trying. This year, her serve has been one of the talking points of the Australian Open.

The fifth seed has so far thundered down 52 aces of which a staggering 21 were against Belinda Bencic in the fourth round. The improved serve might not be the only way to end her losing record to Serena but it can do a world of good to the Russian’s confidence when they meet on Tuesday.

The top seed, as usual, has been in good nick and apart from Camila Giorgi in the first round, nobody has been able to take more than two games per set from the mighty American. Her performance has been top-notch and Sharapova is a rival she shouldn’t be much bothered about given how comfortable she has been against her throughout her career.

But it was right here in Melbourne 11 years ago, when Serena had to claw all the way back from match point down to edge past Sharapova 2-6, 7-5, 8-6.

Can that memory and a revamped serve inspire Sharapova to turn the tables this time?

Prediction: Serena in three sets

The Sharapova-Serena match starts at 7:15 am IST. You can watch the match between possibly two best current female tennis players on here or their app, which is available on both the iOS and Android App stores.

In case you aren’t able to catch the match live, you can watch the highlights on here or the app.

(4) Agnieszka Radwanska vs (10) Carla Suarez Navarro

Two shotmakers will take the court in the first women’s quarter-final on Day 9. Agnieszka Radwanska and Carla Suarez Navarro have met thrice and it is the Pole who leads 2-1. With both being such fine movers on the court, it is no surprise that two out of their three matches have gone the distance.

Interestingly, their last showdown was won by the Spaniard who is the highest-ranked WTA player with a single-handed backhand.  It was at the Miami Open last year where Suarez Navarro went on to make the biggest final of her career and the Pole was then going through a slump.

10 months later, it is a different scenario now. The former Wimbledon runner-up Radwanska is rejuvenated and has once again become the player that she once was. Her fall season turned out to be outstanding where she captured three WTA titles and carried forward that imperious form into the new season, winning the Shenzen crown as well.

The fourth seed breezed through her first three rounds and then survived a barrage from German youngster Anna-Lena Friedsam, who unfortunately cramped in the end. Suarez Navarro, on the other hand, was put to a severe test by two spirited youngsters – Maria Sakkari in the second round and Daria Gavrilova in the fourth round.

Her first set against Gavrilova was riddled with errors and she was blanked 0-6 by the Aussie. If she repeats those mistakes, Radwanska being more accomplished, won’t give her a second chance. The 2014 semi-finalist has talked about doing everything in her power to reach the final and she is not stopping anytime soon.

Prediction: Radwanska in straight sets

(7) Angelique Kerber vs (14) Victoria Azarenka

One of the many things to admire about Victoria Azarenka is that she lives in the moment. The Belarusian has a stellar Australian Open resume on which sparkles her 2012 and 2013 title wins, yet those mean nothing to her right now.

She is charged up, fully focused on lifting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup this year and most importantly, is injury-free. Persistent foot problems marred her 2014 season and while she was back in 2015, she needed time to find her full strength again. This year, Azarenka looks to be there finally and the confirmation comes from the World No. 1 herself as she declares that she is “feeling in the best shape body-wise, you know, spirit-wise, everything-wise”.

That is not good news for the rest of the Tour as she has already shown this year. She started the new season with a title at Brisbane – her first since the Cincinnati title of August 2013. In the Brisbane final, she met Angelique Kerber, who’s her quarter-final opponent on Wednesday.

It was a 6-3, 6-1 thrashing that the left-handed German received and her record against the 14th seed is a dismal 0-6. Their paths at the 2016 Australian Open too have been contrasting. While the seventh-seeded German saved a match point to win her opener against Misaki Doi, Azarenka has cruised through each of her four rounds, losing a total of just 11 games.

That is ominous and even if Kerber’s lefty forehands find their mark, the final outcome doesn’t look likely to be anything different than their last meeting at Brisbane.

Prediction: Azarenka in straight sets

Johanna Konta vs Shuai Zhang

This is the quarter-final nobody expected. Two fairytale runs collide in this clash as both Johanna Konta and Shuai Zhang will be aiming for their maiden semi-final place in a Slam. As seeds fell like ninepins in the bottom-most quarter of the women’s singles draw, these two unseeded ladies grabbed their moment in the sun to make the most out of it.

They themselves were responsible for ousting four of the seeds that included two big names – Simona Halep and Venus Williams. The 47th ranked Konta is the more experienced here who has become a force to reckon with since the middle of last year. She jumped more than 100 rankings spots in the span of a year which saw her defeating the likes of Halep and Wimbledon runner-up Garbine Muguruza.

On Monday, the Sydney-born Konta created history as she became the first British woman since Jo Durie in 1984 to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final. If Konta wanted an easier opponent to continue her spectacular run, she cannot ask for anything better than this.

Her next opponent is ranked 133rd and has no significant advantage over her as they are tied 1-1 in their head-to-head meetings. Shuai Zhang is a qualifier who has now won seven matches in a row this year at the Melbourne Park. After toppling the second seed Halep in the first round of the main draw, Zhang revealed that she was close to retirement very recently.

Clearly, she has now found a new lease of life and is now riding on that burgeoning g confidence. The challenge for both the ladies now is to come down from that emotional high and re-focus for the semi-final berth. The one who is able to do it better should come through on Wednesday. Perhaps, Konta’s memories of her tough three-set win over Zhang in the qualifying rounds of the 2012 US Open can pull her through when the going gets tough.

Prediction: Konta in three sets

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A freelance journalist based in Kolkata who is a diehard Rafael Nadal fan. She is also extremely passionate about India’s progress in sports and hopes to throw light on India’s unsung sports heroes through her articles. When not screaming her lungs out in support of her favourite sports stars, she can be seen reading, watching movies or immersed in planning her next travel destination!
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