Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic scrape into Cincinnati 2014 final

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Serena Williams

 

Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic will meet in the final of the Western and Southern Open after both emerged from three-set battles on Saturday.

Serena was first on court, taking on good friend and former world number one Caroline Wozniacki. It was the pair’s second meeting in eight days, but those hoping for a similarly high-quality match to the one they played in Montreal were sorely disappointed.

Serena began slowly, listlessly. Her serve was still in the locker room, and at times her footwork was so poor it was as though she were playing in quicksand. There was no intensity and little sense of purpose. Wozniacki, meanwhile, picked up where she left off in her impressive straight sets quarter-final defeat of Agnieszka Radwanska. Running well and thinking clearly, she played smart tennis to capitalise on the feast of Williams errors and take the opening set 6-2.

What was already an odd match took a turn for the stranger in the second set, when Serena suddenly flipped a switch on her form. Her grunt returned and she began dictating rallies; in short, she did a much better impression of a top seed who wanted to win a high-profile match. The abrupt turnaround threw Wozniacki off-balance – now she began making a series of head-scratching errors herself. In little over an hour, the match was even at one set apiece.

With the momentum in her grasp, Williams should have run away with the decider, but that didn’t happen. Instead, fans watched in bewilderment as break followed break followed break. The usually reliable Wozniacki first serve all but collapsed, and Serena treated her second deliveries as though she’d been fed a practice ball. But an uptight Williams struggled to consolidate her leads. She was still making enough errors to allow Wozniacki to stay level at 2-2.

If there is a gulf in class between these two players when they are at their best, there is a similar difference when they’re having off-days. Williams may have been playing at a C-level, but she still possesses the greatest serve in the game and can blast winners with apparently little effort. When Wozniacki can’t count on keeping the ball in play, there’s little she can do to hurt a high-calibre opponent. Remembering this, Serena built a 5-2 third set lead.

One more twist followed as Wozniacki played some of her best tennis of the match to get a break back, but Williams wasn’t about to become embroiled in another marathon and she held in the final game to complete a forgettable 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory. The stats of the match – 41 unforced errors, only 30% of break points saved – make for sobering reading for the defending US Open champion, but all that matters is that she won it.

A few hours later, Ana Ivanovic took on Maria Sharapova in the second semi-final. The Serb trailed 3-8 the head-to-head, but she’d won their most recent encounter in Rome and had been playing well in her first four matches in Cincinnati. Sharapova was coming into the last four on the back of a gritty three-set win over Simona Halep.

It was Ivanovic who got the better start. In fact, so good was her start that it almost took her to the finish. Serving well, hitting hard and deep and defending with gusto, the ninth seed built a 6-2, 4-0 lead and a few games later was just a handful of points away from the final.

But Sharapova’s utter hatred of losing kicked in and the comeback was on. The French Open champion won five games from 2-5 down in the second set, reminding everyone watching, including her opponent, that she can never be counted out of any match no matter how dire the predicament. She didn’t adapt her gameplan; she simply willed herself to better things. Balls that she’d been missing were now painting the lines, while her manic scrambling caused Ivanovic to doubt her shot selection and therefore throw in more errors.

Claiming she felt nauseous, Ivanovic took some medical treatment at 1-0 up in the decider, but the delay didn’t appear to distract Sharapova. Leading 4-3 with a break, the Russian looked to set complete yet another of her famous three-set recoveries, leaving an astounded rival to wonder what went wrong.

But it wasn’t to be this time. Ivanovic stayed aggressive and broke back to 4-all. After dropping serve in the next game, she fended off two match points at 4-5 down with some more brave hitting. Returning at 6-5, Ivanovic hit a superb running forehand to move ahead 15-0, and Sharapova was rattled.

With the match two hours, 46 minutes old, Ivanovic stepped forward and sent a backhand into the corner that Sharapova couldn’t return. Her 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 triumph is the latest highlight of a resurgent season, and she’ll enter Sunday’s final buzzing with confidence.

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