Maria Sharapova has a mountain to climb.
Sharapova faces World No.1 Serena Williams in a blockbuster semifinal at the Brisbane International on Friday as she tries to snap a 13-match losing streak dating back to 2005. Sharapova has been out since August with a right shoulder injury but is already showing improved form in her first tournament back under the guidance of new coach, Sven Groeneveld.
Sharapova's gutsy 46 63 62 quarterfinal victory in Brisbane over World No.30 Kaia Kanepi was just the test she needed to prepare for Williams, and enhanced match analytics from SAP and Hawk-Eye this year pinpoint where the improvement is coming from.
The first promising sign for Sharapova against Kanepi was her rally hit point. Sharapova made contact with the ball 76% of the time behind the baseline compared to 89% for her opponent. It doesn't matter so much what the percentage is - only that it is better than the person standing on the other side of the net. If Sharapova is to finally defeat Williams then court position will be a key battle ground. Sharapova needs to stay up in the court as much as possible to dictate rallies and force Williams to react to her tactics.
Of paramount importance will be Sharapova's service games. Sharapova will have to do an outstanding job or protecting her serve as it's very difficult to break Williams, who has only dropped serve once in Brisbane in her opening two matches. Sharapova must use variety much more against Williams than any other opponent to keep her guessing, even if it means serving to her strength. For example, Sharapova only hit two second serves in the deuce court to Kanepi's forehand for the entire match, directing the other 16 to her backhand. While that makes strategic sense against Kanepi, it will be suicide against Williams, who has an outstanding backhand return - made even better if she knows it's going there.
There is a lot to be said for winning the first point of your own service game and that rung true for Sharapova in her quarterfinal. When she won the opening point in 11 of her service games she went on to win nine of those games. Of the three games she lost the opening service point, she only won one of them. Falling behind in the score against Williams will be an even tougher ask.
When returning, Sharapova did not stand inside the baseline to contact any of Kanepi's first serves but stood inside to contact all the second serves. Sharapova must try and stay up in the court as much as possible on Williams' serves and block them deep down the middle of the court, reducing angles to be initially attacked and effectively using Williams' power back against her.
Williams defeated World No.23 Dominika Cibulkova, 63 63, in her quarterfinal, blasting 12 aces and not committing one double fault. Williams won 16 of 17 points to clinch the first set and to go up a break of serve in the second set. These devastating runs make it extremely difficult for her opponents to mount their own offense. Williams won a ridiculously high 83% (15/18) on her second serve points and hit at least one ace in eight of her nine service games. In Williams' last service game, serving at 4-3 in the second set, she served three consecutive aces to close out the game.
This is going to be another blockbuster encounter that will serve both players well in their preparations for the upcoming Australian Open.
Craig O'Shannessy is an Australian tour coach who studies matches to uncover the patterns and percentages that dominate the game. He runs a tennis academy in Austin, Texas and a website called www.braingametennis.com.