Wimbledon 2015: Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova set up a mouthwatering semi-final with wins

The last time the two women played at Wimbledon was eleven years ago, in a final which saw the Russian's solitary Championship success at SW19

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The Independent Online

Whichever women had walked victorious off Centre Court here, would have been the contenders in the de facto final, such is the scale of the collapse in the other half of the draw. But the most mouthwatering prospect possible is the one that has come to pass, and the most exciting match in this year’s ladies’ singles will now take place on Thursday.

Serena Williams, the five time Wimbledon champion, bidding to hold all four majors at once, for a second time, versus Maria Sharapova, the woman who, had she arrived outside the era of Williams hegemony, might have won more. She should have won more.

That said, Sharapova hasn’t beaten her semi-final opponent in ten years, a fact that was put to Williams in the moment after victory.

“But she’s such a fighter and it’s always good to see her doing well,” she said, of the world number four.

The last time the two women played at Wimbledon was eleven years ago, in the final, Sharapova’s solitary Championship.

 

“That would be an incredible moment,” Sharapova said. “For me to step out on Centre Court against her again.”

At her best, or even approaching her best, Serena Williams is the greatest in the world, probably the greatest in history.

But for long periods in her quarter-final match with Victoria Azarenka, just as she has been in much of the rest of the tournament, she was far below her own defining standards.

As has also happened before, her uncertainty came at the start. Azarenka, the Belarusian, a former world number one and twice Australian Open champion, served immaculately and relentlessly, and had won the first set before the contest seemed to have begun. Williams served poorly, made mistakes, and long runs of points went all but uncontested.

But unfortunately for Azarenka, then came the second set, and the third. Serena and the match were transformed. Three unforced errors and 17 winners in the second set tells its own story. In the third, with Williams already a break up a crackling Azarenka passing shot was swooping in at Williams’ feet, who somehow excavated the ball from around her ankles, stripping it of all speed, and clipped it short over the net, from where it could not possibly be returned. Such shots reduce any opponent’s finest endeavours to an irrelevance.

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Maria Sharapova puts everything into a backhand against Coco Vandeweghe (PA)

Sharapova struggled too, against a lesser foe, but it was not so self-inflicted. The 6-3, 6-7, 6-2 scoreline flattered. Coco Vandeweghe, the unseeded American not short on self-belief gave her a serious fright. She also accused her of gamesmanship.

“She was moving around in the middle of my motion on my second serve,” Vandeweghe said, having told the umpire in the middle of the match that if she was “too scared” to talk to Sharapova about it, she would do it herself.

Sharapova said: “It is what it is. If she said it I can't argue, that's her words.”

One statistic in the match was particularly damaging. Only 22 per cent of Sharapova’s returns landed near the baseline, with a worrying 58 per cent bouncing in or near the service line, from where they sat up nicely for Vandeweghe and were punished.

If Sharapova is to play more than one more match in this year’s tournament, that sort of inexactitude will not be good enough.

For long periods, especially at the end of the second set, Vandeweghe's blistering forehands pinned her to the back of the court, honing in time and again on the worn out chalk of the baseline. Sharapova will know that no one’s ground strokes are as punishing as the opponent she now faces.

Williams has, in a gentle but serious way, banned all questions and all talk of the looming ‘Serena Slam’, the term that has been settled upon to describe the achievement she is now very close to achieving for the second time - holding all four majors at once. On paper at least, Sharapova is the most serious obstacle remaining in her way. On current evidence, only Serena’s uncertainties, and her tendency to descend periodically into the mortal realm, can prevent her.   

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