Saving The Best For Last
August 22, 2009 -- Elena Dementieva brought her best game forward today at Rogers Cup in Toronto during her semifinals win over Serena Williams. The last time these two forces collided was in the semifinals at the All England Club, a match that turned instant classic when Serena squeaked by Dementieva in three thrilling sets.
"I was really waiting for this match after Wimbledon because always very interesting to play against Serena, and especially looking for revenge after Wimbledon," Dementieva said.
Dementieva was sharp from the first point to the last point of the match. She returned serves that were as fast as rockets, on both first and second attempts by her opponent. She took the ball earlier than in previous matches this week. Her aggression was palpable.
"I was watching my match against Samantha [Stosur] last night, and I was not happy the way I was playing," Dementieva said. "I think I had a very slow reaction. Today, I was trying to be very aggressive with my foot, to get ready for the ball, because that's the only way to beat her."
She out-served Williams, too, earning 73% on first serve percentage and 64% of the points from those serves. Additionally, she gained more confidence from points she won off returns of Serena's second serve: 68%.
"Always, whenever someone has a decent serve, it always makes a big difference," Williams said.
Dementieva's serve has been the biggest improvement in her game. Memories of multiple double faults and audience sighs in reaction to her poor performance are fresh for many fans. Today, Dementieva served only two double faults.
"Even without serving very fast today, the percentage of the first serve was quite high," Dementieva said. "For sure it gives you a lot of confidence in the serve game. Especially with Serena, you know how close she's in the court trying to return your second serve and put a lot of pressure on you."
Williams' nonplused comment about the improvement in Dementieva's serve seemed to parallel her mood on court. At 5/3 in the first, Williams served to take it but Dementieva held her off.
"I had it," Williams began. "I really probably should have won the first set which probably would have had a different result, but I didn't."
By her own admission, Williams unforced errors climbed as the match went on. She admitted she missed key shots and lingered along the baseline when she should have moved in on short balls from her opponent.
"I can't say I was especially feeling the fire and the burn," Williams said. "But obviously I always really want to do well. I really wanted to win. Honestly I think I could have and should have won, but I didn't. It is what it is."
Alisa Kleybanova's career prize money hovers around $800,000. Maria Sharapova's earnings from tennis alone are $12.5 million, in contrast. That figure doesn't include lucrative deals with advertisers such as Nike, Tiffany & Co. and Sony Ericsson, to name a few. Maria has also been named one of the richest female athletes in the world by Forbes magazine.
Aside from their disparate incomes, the playing field for the two was level. They had never played each other. But while Sharapova rehabbed her shoulder throughout 2008 and until May of 2009, Kleybanova rose in the rankings. She reached her first three WTA Tour quarterfinals, scoring two wins over top-twenty players Daniela Hantuchova and Agnes Szavay. But most notable was the young Russian's victory over Venus Williams in Madrid this spring. Kleybanova reached her career high ranking of 32 in November of last year, deep into the Sharapova respite.
Sharapova and Kleybanova sparred for dominance in the first set, the way two wrestlers circle and check each other out. Before three games were up, Kleybanova had saved 12 break points on her serve. Sharapova converted the thirteenth, collecting one of two breaks to win the set 6/2. It took, however, fifty-six minutes.
"She hits a pretty powerful ball," Sharapova said.
In the second, Kleybanova improved her service percentage and converted two crucial break points. Sharapova's serve wobbled, too. She committed six of her twelve double faults here.
"There were lots of momentum changes in the match," Sharapova said. "I had my opportunities in the second but didn't take advantage. But I stayed tough and kept going.
Although the third set was tight, with Kleybanova going up an early break her footwork slowed and her serving waned. Instead of staccato steps to the balls, she reached for them with her racquet -- her feet out of place. She couldn't recover well enough to attack the next shot, which Sharapova predominantly placed on the opposite side of the court.
Maria Sharapova earned her spot in tomorrow's final on the first match point, defeating a persistent Kleybanova 62 46 64.
"It's exciting to make a first final after an injury," Sharapova said. "I'm really grateful I have a chance to be in another final in my career."
Kleybanova will move into the top 30, with her semifinal finish, and earn a seed at the U. S. Open. Amazingly enough, Sharapova will also be seeded at the Open, with her semifinal finish at Rogers Cup. Only a power like the WTA could develop a ranking system that could make sense of those realities.
Tomorrow's all-Russian final will draw attention from fans and media alike. Both women are statuesque and determined. With a little over twelve hours to recover from today's semifinal victory, Dementieva will certainly be favored. However, Sharapova has dominated Dementieva, leading 8-2 in head-to-head matches. They met last in the 2008 Australian Open, in the round of sixteen. Sharapova captured that Grand Slam title without dropping a set. Dementieva last defeated Sharapova in Los Angeles, 2006. It was a straight set victory.