In the first course of tonight’s Australian Open semifinals, World No. 2 Maria Sharapova will square off with 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na.
The Russian leads their head-to-head pretty comfortably, 8-4, and she’s prevailed in their last two meetings. All but two of their matches have been straight set wins for one or the other. It’s hard to know what to expect from this match, because as we all know, Li is fairly unpredictable.
Things to watch for:
1. Maria Sharapova has been serving very well so far in the tournament. Going into the second week, she ranked just below Serena Williams for percentage of service points won. She’s also kept her double faults to a minimum, averaging a little under four per match. She’s winning a lot of her first serve points, and she’s protecting the second serve very effectively. A decent service performance from Sharapova will help her cause.
2. Li Na’s style lends itself to hitting a lot of errors. She can win matches while racking up high error counts, but only to a reasonable extent. In order to beat Sharapova, she will have to do her best to not give away too many free points.
3. The return game of Sharapova has been on fire so far. Can Li stand up to the pressure on her own serve?
The players are on court, but ESPN2 is currently showing the last two minutes of a blowout college basketball game. I don’t know, either.
The basketball game ends, and tennis is finally on TV. Li Na wins the toss, and elects to receive.
First Set – Maria Sharapova Will Serve First
0-0: Sharapova starts things off with two consecutive double faults. Probably not what the World No. 2 was hoping for. Li attacks Sharapova’s second serve, but Sharapova defends well to get to 15-30 off a Li error. Sharapova dominates the next point and hits a forehand winner from the center of the court. An error from Li gives her game point, but pressure from Li forces a backhand long from Sharapova. Deuce. Despite Sharapova hitting the ball shallow so far, Li pushes a shot long for another Sharapova game point. Li brings her back to deuce on a highlight reel backhand down-the-line. Li earns her first break point off a Sharapova second ball error. Li ups the pace on the ball, and Sharapova dumps a forehand into the net. Break for Li.
1-0, Li: Li cracks a forehand long and Sharapova cracks a backhand return long for 15-all. At 15-30, Li hits a gorgeous backhand winner. But Sharapova earns a break point from a lovely angled running forehand cross court. Li saves it with a backhand winner. So far, these players are bringing it. Great tennis from both. Li comes out on top of an impressive rally to hold.
2-0, Li: Li takes advantage of a netcord to hit a winner, but Sharapova finally gets three free points off her first serve. Ace for game point. She could use more of that. She holds by way of a backhand winner hit from the back of the court as she moves Li back and forth behind the baseline.
2-1, Li: Li sets up a deceptive forehand down-the-line winner. Another slightly lucky netcord gives Li the chance to hit a winner on a point that was all Sharapova. The netcord again goes against Sharapova, as Li hits yet another winner off a short ball. Li gets a big first serve in, and holds.
3-1, Li: Sharapova isn’t playing particularly poorly, but Li is punishing everything that comes in short. She’s also not missing her shots. Sharapova mixes in a very untimely double fault for 0-30. Li nets a forehand return to bail Sharapova out of trouble for now, and Sharapova gets that crucial first serve and puts away a short ball for 30-all. A huge serve from Sharapova flies off the racquet of Li, and Sharapova has a chance to close out the game at 40-30. Li gets great depth to force a backhand error. Deuce. Sharapova hits another big first serve that Li fails to return, but Sharapova can’t handle Li’s consistent pressure and makes two consecutive unforced errors to hand Li a break point. Sharapova saves it, but Li hits a huge return winner to earn another. Sharapova comes up with the big serve for deuce. Sharapova dumps a routine backhand into the net at a very poor time to give Li her third break point of the game. Set up by a great backhand return that catches Sharapova off guard, Li steps into the court and sets up an easy backhand cross court winner as Sharapova is pulled out to the forehand side. Li breaks.
4-1, Li: We are reminded just how hard it is to play Li when she’s hitting in between the lines. Sharapova makes a good challenge on a second serve ace that was called in. She was right, it was out. Sharapova makes another good challenge off a Li forehand that went long, earning her two break points. These line calls are awful. Li saves both break points with some fearless hitting. Li holds off a great return from Sharapova to get to game point. Sharapova stays in the game with a line-clipping deep forehand that Li can’t handle. Li finally makes a wild miss on the forehand side to give Sharapova another chance to break. Sharapova nails her trademark return, and Li nets the reply. Sharapova breaks.
4-2, Li: Sharapova makes a couple of loose errors for 15-30, but finds an unreturnable serve in her arsenal. A great serve out wide to Li’s forehand gives Sharapova an easy put-away. Li surprises Sharapova by hitting back behind her to get to deuce. Sharapova then nets a forehand. Li has a break point. Again, Sharapova finds the big serve she needs, this time down the T. Li cracks a sharp angled forehand return winner to earn another break point. Sharapova hits a great second serve out wide to Li’s backhand and saves the break point. Li hits a fantastic backhand down-the-line and has another break chance. Li breaks.
Sharapova has won just three out of 15 second serve points. Li is doing a great job of punishing that shot.
5-2, Li: Sharapova makes three sloppy errors. Three set points for Li. She completely shanks one of them, but makes the second one count. Li takes the first set, 6-2.
First set stats:
Li’s unforced error count being in the single digits is a frightening sight for her opponent. The question is whether she can keep that up. Sharapova will also need to serve a great deal better in this second set if she wants to get back into the match.
Second Set: Maria Sharapova Will Serve First
0-0: We don’t get to see the first game of the set because ESPN is showing highlights from the set we just watched. Makes sense. Apparently, Sharapova holds.
1-0, Sharapova: Sharapova punishes a short second serve from Li to earn her first break point of the set. Li saves it with a fantastic cross court forehand winner. Sharapova misses a first serve return, going for too much on the shot. Li makes an error to allow Sharapova to stay in the game. Deuce. Li clings on to hold. Sharapova missed some chances there she may rue later in the set.
LOL Maria has already made more errors in this match than in each of her previous matches. (via ESPN)
— Matt (@Tennisfan24) January 24, 2013
1-1: Sharapova gets a rare easy hold at 15. Li has almost hit half of the unforced errors she hit in the first set, three games in. A sign that Li is coming back down to earth?
2-1, Sharapova: Li mixes it up on serve, and Sharapova is having some trouble handling the return. Li holds.
Li threw a tennis equivalent of a 68-mile-per-hour change-up on that serve and got a swinging strikeout.
— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) January 24, 2013
2-2: Li is hitting forehand winners all over the place. It’s very impressive. And it feels precarious. Sharapova has two game points, but a return winner from Li and a big shank from Sharapova bring the game to deuce. Li crushes a backhand return to get to break point, but nets a forehand to bring the game back to deuce. Sharapova hits a horrible double fault to give Li another chance. When Li is playing this well, you simply can’t do that. Sure enough, Li gets the error from Sharapova. Li breaks.
Fifth game Sharapova has lost after having game/break points.
— unseeded & looming (@unseededlooming) January 24, 2013
3-2, Li: Sharapova struggles on the return, but she fights to stay in the game, and absolutely blasts an angled backhand winner cross court to get to break point. Sharapova can’t convert. She’s an abysmal 1/7 on break points so far in the match. Li holds with a big serve down the T.
About time to cross from “Maria is in killer form” to “Maria didn’t face any tests” in the story department. #ausopen
— Steve Tignor (@SteveTignor) January 24, 2013
4-2, Li: A couple of loose points bring Li two points from a chance to serve out the match. Sharapova comes up with a few big serves to get to game point. Again, Sharapova can’t close out the game. An absolutely wild forehand miss that goes miles wide and long gives Li another break point. Another gives Li the break. Li will serve for the match.
5-2, Li: Li is just moving Sharapova around the court at will. Her shots have pace and depth, and she’s hardly missing. It’s fun to watch. Sharapova fights to get to 30-all. With a big serve, Li gets to match point. She misses wide, but earns another with an incredibly well-placed serve out wide to Sharapova’s forehand. On Li’s second match point, Sharapova can’t get Li’s serve in play, and with a dumped backhand into the net, Li has won the match, 6-2, 6-2, to reach her second Australian Open final.
Rennae Stubbs asks Li if 30 is the new 20 in her post-match interview. “No, no. The truth is, I’m younger than you.” Deep burn!
Second set stats:
This match, like so many of her matches, was played on Li Na’s racquet. But instead of her usual fluctuating form, she sustained her onslaught for the entire match. It might be one of the most comprehensive wins over a tough opponent I’ve ever seen from her.
The biggest key to Li’s success was the way she played on Sharapova’s serve. She won a gaudy 75% of Sharapova second serve points.
Li played an incredibly intelligent match from start to finish. She didn’t force shots that weren’t there, which is typically where she can get herself into trouble. When Sharapova dropped a ball short, Li stepped in and made her pay. There were also no mental lapses.
This match was a boon for those who have viewed Li as an incredibly talented underachiever for years. Whether it’s coaching, a new mental calm, or simply hitting her peak form at the right time, it’s nice to see Li living up to her tremendous talent.
As for Sharapova, it’s hard to say she really played poorly. She was simply outplayed by a better opponent. Very few players would have had a chance against this version of Li. She did struggle to convert the opportunities she had. She missed six break chances, which could’ve changed the complexion of the match.
Full match stats: