*”Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams to Battle” … well, scratch that. I was just dying to write that headline, completing it with “in Desert IW Final,” because it would’ve been the perfect way to consummate Serena’s highly-publicized return to Indian Wells. But, Sharapova, unfortunately, went down in the round of 16 in a hail of backhands from the tournament’s defending champion, Flavia Pennetta.
“I think I have the good backhand, and with her she play normally like the cross court really, really fast,” the defending champion said. “Most of the players don’t take the first two or three shots with her. For me, was easy. …my backhand is the good the good shot, the natural shot that I have.”
As the No. 2 seed, the Russian could’ve only met the thorn in her side, Williams, in the final. And given her tenacity, that was likely something she looked forward to despite their one-sided history. With each opportunity, she says she “feels like she’s getting closer” to the ultimate take down of her arch nemesis – albeit 11 years in incubation, and a final meeting at IW when facing an emotional Serena Williams could’ve been her moment.
But the 2-time champion was surprisingly – despite the fact that she went out early last year – unable to go the distance.
She started out well against Pennetta, taking the first set at 6-3, but once the Italian unleashed her frustrations by having a good off-court cry and steadied herself, it was as if the confectionary queen, Sharapova, had dipped into her own product. She lost control and began spraying balls everywhere. The loss of control ultimately lost her the match, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6.
Sharapova wasn’t the only seed to fall into the deadly desert soil, though. Most of the names that you’d typically see occupying slots on the business end of the bracket sheet weren’t. Agniezska Radwanska, Ana Ivanovic, Angelique Kerber, Eugenie Bouchard and others, were all also upset much earlier than expected. Per the usual script, Serena has handled her business, but the desert heat apparently proved too much for her usual competition.
The 19-time slam champion played Timea Bascinsky in the round of 16 on Wednesday night and snapped the Suisse’s 15-match winning streak. There were a few traded breaks of serve in the blustery match, but experience prevailed with Serena pulling off the straight sets victory, 7-5, 6-3, without really busting a sweat. The exchange at the net was very warm:
“I told her she had a really good couple of weeks and to keep up the good work,” Serena said. “She was like, ‘Thanks!’ She was excited. She obviously wanted to win.”
But not today.
With the other side of the draw having been decimated of top seeds, should Serena make the final she would be facing a much lower-ranked foe (no higher than 15) and log the easy win:
Should Pennetta make it, who is that 15th seed, it would certainly make sense. The “tennis gods” have cleared an easy path for her to at least try and defend her title, which would be a first since Martina Navratilova did it in ’90 and ’91.
“I mean, I know from the first moment that was not easy to doing the same thing as last year,” she said of the possible repeat.
And I admittedly thought last year was a fluke, given the caliber of the draw, but a few more days will tell story.
The difference between a period or an exclamation mark being placed at the end of the story of Serena’s return to Indian Wells will be whether she hoists the trophy or not in the end. She doesn’t have to, but an emphatic punctuation in the history books would certainly be nice.
“That would really be great,” she said of the potential win. “But I don’t really think that far in advance. If I win — I have two tough matches potentially, so hopefully I will be able to play two good matches.”
Standing in the way of that emphatic ending would not only be a confident Pennetta (whom she owns head-to-head), but also a steady Simons Halep of Romania, who brutally upset her in a round robin match at the 2014 year-end finals. She’d have to get thru her in the semis.
“It’s a good surface for her. I feel like she can definitely come out here, and when we play, play really well,” she said when asked about facing the world No. 3.
Ever the vengeful champion, Serena ultimately avenged her loss to the Romanian and hoisted the year-end trophy, but who knows what’ll happen in the desert heat.
Now officially the last American standing, man or woman, she’ll face Halep on Friday on Stadium 1 court.