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In one of the most thrilling and wildly fluctuating WTA matches of recent times, Ana beat five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 to set-up a Western & Southern Open final against world No.1 Serena Williams.
Ana led 6-2, 5-2 and looked to have blown her chances – indeed Sharapova later missed two match points – before mounting a stunning comeback of her own to conquer the Russian.
Where to begin? It was a match that Ana could easily have won 6-2, 6-2 – and she could easily have lost it.
Just as she had done in their Stuttgart final in April, Ana played some stunning tennis in the opening set. She scored a break to lead 3-1, and a superb backhand return winner clinched the opening set 6-2. She was overwhelming the Russian, who currently leads the Road To Singapore standings, the rankings based on results during 2014 only.
Sharapova’s coach Sven Groeneveld, who was at Ana’s side when she won the 2008 French Open, was called onto court during the change of ends. He dispensed some tactical advice; intriguingly, Sharapova did not look at him, such was her intensity.
The Dutchman’s counsel didn’t have much effect as Ana’s continued aggression earned her another three break points in the second game. Perhaps fearful of Ana’s superb return game, Sharapova double-faulted on the third and Ana duly moved ahead 2-0.
By this point the No.9 seed had won 100% of points when serving wide to Sharapova’s forehand on the deuce court, a statistic that illustrated the brilliance of Ana’s tactical play, alongside her near-perfect execution.
Ana extended her advantage to 4-0, but considering that she had enjoyed a 6-4, 3-1 lead in Stuttgart, she still had some way to go to seal victory.
And so it proved.
At 4-0, 40-40, Ana hit a forehand that landed smack on the baseline (as Hawk-Eye would attest). Sharapova was behind the ball, and hit a forehand wide. The line judge called Ana’s shot “out”, but the umpire immediately over-ruled it and adjudged the ball to be “in”. Ana believed that, because Sharapova had seemingly tried to play the ball, the point was hers.
However, the umpire ordered the point to be replayed, much to Ana’s frustration. Sharapova won it and won back one of the two breaks. She then held serve to reduce the arrears to 4-2.
Ana’s followers, and maybe even Ana herself, could be forgiven for fearing the worst, considering some of the huge leads the 26-year-old had spurned in the past, most notably 5-2 in the final set against then world No.4 Na Li one year ago in Toronto, and 5-1 in the third set (and five match points) against then world No.2 Kim Clijsters in Miami.
However, Ana started game seven with three unreturnable serves to open up a 40-0 lead. Sharapova hit back and took the game to deuce, but Ana moved just one game from victory by holding serve to lead 5-2, pumping her fist in satisfaction as she did so.
Sharapova held serve and Ana played an unsure game when serving for the match at 5-3. Almost inevitably, the world No.6 broke back. She was in the ascendancy and, incredible competitor that she is, she came up with the goods when it mattered. She broke Ana again then held serve to level the match.
Ana took a bathroom break. She regrouped. She held serve and moved ahead 1-0.
Sharapova’s three-set record is peerless among WTA players and even Ana’s staunchest fans must have felt hopeful rather than confident about the former No.1’s chances of victory.
While ahead 1-0, and with Sharapova serving, Ana keeled over, with a look of concern etched across her face. She walked gingerly to the umpire’s chair and asked for a medical evaluation. The trainer came onto court and appeared to take Ana’s blood pressure, before giving her a capsule to swallow.
Almost inexorably, Sharapova broke to lead 2-1 in the following game. Ana’s chance had been and gone, surely?
Breaks were traded and the Russian served at 4-3. She faced two break points, and double-faulted to allow Ana to level at 4-4.
It was at this moment that Sharapova exhibited questionable sportsmanship, as she cattily said, “take her blood pressure” (click here to see video; link opens in new browser window), a sarcastic reference to Ana’s medical issues, which the Russian later speculated were down to anxiety.
Ana was right back in it, but the steely-nerved Sharapova seemed the more likely winner. Certainly, when she broke for 5-4 there was a sad sense of the expected among many of Ana’s supporters.
That feeling heightened when Sharapova held a 40-15 lead and with it two match points. Fearlessly, Ana saved them both. What followed was almost unprecedented: Sharapova buckled. She served consecutive double faults to allow Ana to break back.
Ana held serve and, unlike at the conclusion of the second set, she maintained her aggressive style of play when standing on the edge of victory. It was all over after two hours and 47 minutes when Sharapova was unable to control a searing backhand from the world No.11.
Asked by on-court interviewer Mary Joe Fernandez to describe her emotions, Ana laughed: “They’re all over the place to be honest. It was a very up and down match.
“She played well, she’s a fighter, she never gives up. But I was so pleased to stay calm on those match points and turn it around.”
Ana takes on world No.1 Serena Williams, whom she lost to in Stanford two weeks ago, in Sunday’s final.
The American beat Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki for a second straight week, triumphing 2-6, 6-2, 6-4.
The match is scheduled to begin at 2pm local time (8pm Central European Time). Click here for live point-by-point scoring from the Linder Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati.
Photo: Manuela Davies / doubleXposure.com