A busy and sometimes puzzling week in Cincinnati culminates in a blockbuster final between the world’s best player and one of the tour’s most popular personalities. Check out the Williams vs Ivanovic Head to Head matches.
Looking at Serena Williams’ path to the Western and Southern Open final, it’s difficult to gauge the American’s form. She was forced to dig deep in her second round match with Sam Stosur, eking it out in two tie-breaks after being down in each. She followed this with a couple of easy wins over Flavia Pennetta and Jelena Jankovic, in which she dropped a total of eight games. Then, on Saturday, Serena played a shocker of a semi-final against Caroline Wozniacki. She was broken seven times, hit way more errors than winners and, perhaps most alarmingly, looked uninterested in the outcome for much of the match. Even after wresting control in the second set, she played a lacklustre decider and in the end relied as much on Wozniacki’s mistakes as her own talent to sneak through.
But sneak through she did, and that’s what counts. We might not have seen the very best of Serena on North American hard courts this summer, but there’s no arguing with her results. She won the trophy in Stanford, reached the last four in Montreal and now has a shot at the Cincinnati title. Who else could win the US Open series without playing bringing her A game day-in, day out?
A much easier task is to examine the state of Ana Ivanovic’s game. Without a doubt, the Serb is playing her best tennis since 2008, when she won the French Open and climbed to the summit of the WTA rankings. Over the last few years we’d become used to seeing Ivanovic blow hot and cold, following up impressive high-profile wins with disappointing losses. This week, however, her game has wavered without breaking down. Her five victories in Cincinnati have ranged from comprehensive (straight sets dismissals of Christina McHale and Elina Svitolina) to uneven (a three-set win over Svetlana Kuznetsova) to nail-biting (a marathon defeat of Maria Sharapova in which she saved two match points). A more relaxed customer on and off the court these days, the 26-year-old has learned how to pause, think and rectify.
That said, it’s doubtful if it will ever be smooth sailing where Ivanovic is concerned. During her thrilling semi-final victory over Sharapova, she required medical treatment for nausea in the deciding set. Courageous hitting alternated with reckless ball bashing, and her serve toss remained as unpredictable as ever. Ivanovic is a wildly talented player, but she’ll never be a reliable one.
So with Ana exhausted and possibly sick after last night’s exertions and Serena running on empty at the end of three weeks on the road, what can we expect in the Cincinnati showpiece? Williams leads the head-to-head 6-1, but she’s unlikely to forget that the blip came in the fourth round of the Australian Open earlier this year. She’ll also recall that she had to rely on all her experience and fight to subdue a motivated Ivanovic in their most recent clash, in the Stanford quarter-finals two weeks ago.
If Ivanovic is going to upset Serena for the second time in 2014, she can hardly ask for a better opportunity. Serena is not at the peak of her powers and she admitted to getting tight during her match with Wozniacki. She’ll also be feeling the pressure to win one of the very few trophies to elude her. If Ivanovic can serve reasonably consistently and return with intent, stepping up the court to rush Williams during rallies, she’ll have a real chance.
After a wacky semi-finals day, anything could happen in this match. Serena, disgusted at her form leading into the final, could produce a flawless display that cements her status as the US Open favourite. On the other hand, she might play as she did for much of the Wozniacki match, and get swept aside by a streaking, determined Ivanovic in straight sets.
The last time Serena “hit the wall” during a tournament was the WTA Championships in Istanbul last year. There, she laboured to a semi-final win over Jankovic and somehow summoned the will to beat Li Na in another three-setter. Our prediction is that a similar scenario will play out in Cincinnati. With her legs feeling heavy and her mind already wandering to New York, Serena will do just enough at the right moments to land a 62nd career title.