Now just two wins away from a record-equalling sixth US Open title, Serena Williams is radiating focus and intensity. The player who disappointed at Wimbledon and the Australian and French Opens has been replaced by the winning machine we recognise from 2012 and 2013. Not having dropped a set all tournament, Serena is an even hotter favourite than she was two weeks ago. Check out the Williams v Makarova Head to Head.
Follow the match Live: Williams vs Makarova
Williams had what was in many ways an ideal route to the final four. On Wednesday night, Flavia Pennetta pushed her, racing into a 3-0 double break first set lead. The Italian was serving well and using her formidable all-court skills to stretch and frustrate Serena, who was struggling to find her own rhythm. But Pennetta’s purple patch turned out to be something of a false start. Serena steadied herself, stared down her fellow 32-year-old and reeled off 12 of the next 14 games, clocking 31 winners in the process. Not a cakewalk, but not an energy-sapping marathon either, this encounter was a useful test for the world number one, and she aced it.
Yet while many are already anointing Serena as the 2014 US Open champion, the woman herself never takes anything for granted. And as the only top eight seed still in contention, she will be well aware that she can’t underestimate anyone, especially her semi-final opponent, Ekaterina Makarova. The Russian has enjoyed almost as smooth a passage to the semis as Serena; in five matches she hasn’t dropped a set and only once was she forced into a tie-break.
Makarova’s first three victims in New York – Grace Min, Polona Hercog and Zarina Diyas – are not the most fearsome trio in tennis, but she beat them cleanly and calmly. In the last 16, she outlasted Eugenie Bouchard in tough conditions, and at the quarter-final stage she was just too solid for Victoria Azarenka. Through five rounds, Makarova has used a tricky lefty serve and awkward angles to haul her opponents this way and that. One half of one of the world’s best doubles teams, she has also been adept at moving forward to punish short balls. Her game is not the most bombastic or creative, but it is clever, nuanced and extremely effective.
Into a Grand Slam semi-final for the first time in her 10-year career, Makarova has said that she wants to “keep going”. To do that, though, she’ll have to pull off arguably the biggest upset of the year. Serena’s losses at the first three majors of 2014 were shocking, but they were at least partly understandable, the result of standout performances from her opponents and below-par displays from Williams herself.
They also came at the early or mid-point of the tournament, where Serena is at her most vulnerable. In 16 years on the WTA Tour, Serena has lost only three Grand Slam semi-finals – to Venus Williams, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. She simply flicks the switch at this stage of a major, elevating her game and fighting to the death; as a result, it takes a remarkable performance from a great champion to beat her.
Makarova is an excellent player, but she is not a great champion. She may have beaten Serena on a big stage before (at the Australian Open 2012), but she didn’t do it when the American was at full fitness. It’s almost impossible to envisage a scenario in which she takes out a healthy, motivated Serena playing on home soil with the world watching.
Prediction: With an 18th Grand Slam title now in clear sight, Serena will drop just a handful of games to an overawed, overwhelmed Makarova and be off court in just over an hour.