This piece would have read rather differently had it been written on Sunday morning. “Can anyone beat Serena?” would be the first question. Were she and Victoria Azarenka on a relentless collision course that would end in Serena’s first title here since 2010, would be the second. And thirdly, was there anything Maria Sharapova or Li Na could do about it?
But that’s the beauty of Grand Slam tennis. The course of a tournament can turn on a cent, and sometimes you don’t know what’s coming till it hits you in the face.
In ending Serena’s run of 25 straight wins on Sunday afternoon and beating the American for the first time in five meetings, Ana Ivanovic has moved the outcome of this year’s Australian Open from the realms of predictable to the not-really-sure.
The 2008 Melbourne finalist, who will play her first major quarterfinal since the US Open 2012, now sits pretty at the top of the women’s draw, a position she hasn’t been in since she was world No.1 in 2008. But Ivanovic will know she has a tough task ahead of her in Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard, the WTA’s poster-heiress-apparent. Against Serena, Ivanovic was not expected to win. Against Bouchard, whom she lost to at Wimbledon, she will be. It is not a position Ivanovic has always coped with well in the past.
But although all eyes are on Ivanovic and her blue dress now, there are two others more likely to be clutching the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup next weekend.
The first is Li, Ivanovic’s probable semi-final opponent, who has plenty of pedigree on these bright blue courts. Twice a finalist, Li has been playing with a fluidity and belief that shows that Carlos Rodriguez’s quiet calm and authority is hitting home. Granted, she owes her place in the quarters to a few missed centimetres, Lucie Safarova catching her on a wild day of 50 unforced errors amid the torrid heat. But her follow-up, dropping just two games to Ekaterina Makarova on Sunday, suggests Li has locked her head back in. She wants this title, there is no doubt.
Can Flavia Pennetta, Li’s equal in age, who is in her first Australian Open quarter-final, beg to differ? She does lead their head-to-head 2-1, but it seems unlikely.
The second is Azarenka, the defending champion here, who, for the third year in a row, knows she will not have to face Serena to win the title. Given the way she fell apart after the latest Williams’ win, at last year’s US Open, that has to be some fillip. And she has been playing well, too. Her return game in particular is on point, her movement good, and her demeanour focused. True, she has probably not been truly tested yet, and that is where Sloane Stephens has an opportunity when the pair meet on Monday. In a repeat of their controversial semi-final here last year, the sense is that Azarenka will try to shut Stephens down quickly. Whether the American can take it to her instead will prove crucial.
Sharapova, meanwhile, also will have observed Serena’s exit with interest. She is the leading player in the third quarter, and, although still in the midst of her comeback from injury, is playing with plenty of purpose. The rough ride against Karin Knapp in the eye of the heat-storm has set her on a high level. While none of Dominika Cibulkova, her fourth round opponent, and either Jelena Jankovic and Simona Halep, her potential quarter-final foes, are pushovers, if she can up her first serve percentage and reign in the unforced errors a little, it will be Sharapova standing in Azarenka’s way in the final four.
That’s if Agnieszka Radwanska doesn’t change the tempo. The fifth seed and former Wimbledon finalist has never made it out of the last eight here, but has been warmed up by three-setters against Yulia Putintseva and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Garbine Muguruza, on a hot streak as Hobart champion, won’t be easy, but Radwanska is the perfect person to soak up the Spaniard’s power and send it back to her with spin. If she does, she’ll be a tricky prospect for either Azarenka or Stephens, whichever one of them survives the rematch.
But, as always, these are not straightforward scenarios, and whatever we think should happen, in reality, will only possibly-maybe happen.
There are two former Australian Open champions left in this draw, Azarenka and Sharapova. With Serena gone, it is just as likely that they will be adding a third or second Australian Open trophy to their parlour, as someone new proudly lifting a first.
We just have to wait and see.