The undercooked meets the underrated as Victoria Azarenka takes on Ekaterina Makarova in the US Open 2014 quarter-finals on Wednesday.
In many ways Azarenka’s progress to the last eight in New York is a remarkable achievement. A serious foot injury has meant that the Belarusian has played only 20 matches all season. Since returning to the tour in June, she hasn’t looked anything like the player who won two Australian Open titles or sat atop the world rankings. She arrived in Flushing Meadows dealing with another ailment – a dodgy right knee – and under pressure to put together wins lest her ranking plummet.
Yet Vika has done what no one else, bar Serena and Sharapova, can do: will herself to victory. Things looked bleak when she lost the opening set of her first round match to Misaki Doi, but she pulled herself together and came through in three. Her second round 6-3, 6-2 triumph over Christina McHale was infinitely tougher than the scoreline suggests, and required her to recover from a 0-3, 15-40 first set deficit. On Monday night, she was dragged into her most brutal dogfight so far, a two hour, 19 minute battle with Aleksandra Krunic that she was very fortunate to escape from.
With her serve misfiring, her usually dependable groundstrokes sailing long and her movement and fitness not yet where they should be, Azarenka has competed like a demon to put together four consecutive match wins for the first time since the Australian Open. Her participation in doubt just over a week ago, she is now one of the eight women with a shot at the US Open title.
While Azarenka has spent much of the year rehabilitating and recovering, Ekaterina Makarova has quietly enjoyed a very successful season. After defeating the in-form Venus Williams on her way to the last 16 in Melbourne, she won the second title of her career in Pattaya City. She thrashed Agnieszka Radwanska to make the Wimbledon quarter-finals, and reached the last four in both Washington and Montreal, where she dispatched Petra Kvitova. Although still far from being a household name, Makarova has become one of the players no top seed wants to face. Eugenie Bouchard can attest to that: the ill Canadian was made to feel even worse during a 7-6, 6-4 defeat to Makarova on Louis Armstrong Stadium on Monday.
Azarenka and Makarova have met five times, on clay, grass and hard courts. Azarenka has won three of those matches, but Makarova won the most recent in Madrid last year. Vika is clearly the more accomplished and better player, but only when she’s close to top form. Currently, only one ranking spot separates these two.
The stage is set for Makarova to make her first ever Grand Slam semi-final. She’s playing well while Azarenka is still forcing the issue. Her tricky lefty serve is an asset and has been working wonders in New York; Azarenka’s delivery has been all over the place. Makarova is confident, thinking clearly and has been opening up the court beautifully during her first four matches. Azarenka still doesn’t quite trust herself to make bold shots, and her occasionally impressive forays to the net have been tempered by too many short, high bouncing balls mid-rally.
But experience, nerves and desire are also key factors in a high-profile match, and that is where Azarenka has the edge. Deprived of competitive action this season, she is ravenous for success. She might have contested only two quarter-finals this year, but she is comfortable on the big stage and knows how to win even when, especially when, her best shots aren’t there.
Prediction: Azarenka, who has improved by degrees this tournament, will clean up her game a little more and grind down Makarova in three sweaty sets.