Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova are playing not just for a berth in the Australian Open final but possibly the women's No. 1 ranking.
If Kim Clijsters beats Victoria Azarenka in the day's first semifinal matchup, then this match becomes a de facto battle for the No. 1 ranking. And no matter who wins, that would make for a fantastic story. For Sharapova, it would be one of redemption. She lost her No. 1 ranking about four years ago and has had to battle back, both from shoulder surgery and the extreme inconsistency that followed.
For Kvitova, it would mark the culmination of what is becoming one hell of a hot streak. She won her final 12 matches of 2011 (including wins over most of the world's top-ranked players in the WTA Championships) and has won seven of eight thus far in 12. Her lone blemish: a three-setter versus Li Na in the semifinals at Sydney. She is still relatively glitch-prone -- she lost to no-names in her first matches at both the U.S. Open in September (Alexandra Dulgheru) and at the WTA Tour China Open in October (Sofia Arvidsson); but she is coming up bigger and bigger against elite competition. A repeat win over Sharapova, whom she beat in last year's Wimbledon finals, would be yet another step forward for the 21-year old from the Czech Republic.
Unlike the other semifinals previewed today (Federer-Nadal, Clijsters-Azarenka), there is little history between these two players. They have met just three times and have only twice played matches that didn't end in injury.
Match No. 1, Memphis 2010 Semifinals: Sharapova won, 6-4, 6-3.
Match No. 2, Wimbledon 2011 Finals: Kvitova won, 6-3, 6-4.
Match No. 3, Tokyo 2011 Quarterfinals: Kvitova won, 4-3--retired.
Sharapova injured her ankle and was forced to retire in what would have been the rubber match of the series. Instead, for all intents and purposes, we're still tied at 1-1. Sharapova handled the then-20 year old Kvitova rather easily in Memphis two summers ago, which made her a reasonably heavy favorite to win the Wimbledon final last July; of course, Kvitova was magnificent in that match. (See the highlights below.)
Of all the young, high-upside females on tour, it is pretty easy to make the case that Kvitova has the highest ceiling. She has experienced struggles with specific players -- Li Na has beaten her twice in the last year, as have Vera Zvonareva and Andrea Petkovic -- but she has come on very strong recently, and ... just watch her hit. She has low-effort power, and her use of angles is perhaps the strongest on the women's tour.
Still, Sharapova is not exactly chopped liver. She has one of the best return games, she will pummel the lines, and she has proven able to maintain a high level of intensity in a given match. Her ability to serve consistently will likely make or break her. Though quite improved over the last year, her serve still very much comes and goes. If she is landing her first serve, she will be able to dictate play and put pressure on Kvitova; if not, she might be playing defense at all times.
Meanwhile, the goal for Kvitova has to focus around resilience. If she can quickly recover from her mistakes (or, as at Wimbledon last year, just not make any), despite the extra pressure of playing for No. 1, she probably has more ability to win easy points and take the win. She should be considered the favorite because of that. But Sharapova's extra experience could come in handy, especially if she starts faster than she did at Wimbledon last summer.