US Open 2014 Women's Semifinal: Makarova vs. Williams Preview and Prediction

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2014

US Open 2014 Women's Semifinal: Makarova vs. Williams Preview and Prediction

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Serena Williams made things interesting, more interesting than needed, in her quarterfinal match against Flavia Pennetta. Williams dropped the first three games, then rattled off six in a row en route to a 6-3, 6-2 win over the Italian.

    "I felt she was playing really well," Williams said during the ESPN broadcast. "I don't feel like I was doing anything wrong. I said, 'If she keeps it up she deserves the win.' I just tried to do a little better."

    Ekaterina Makarova, meanwhile, keeps on de-seeding the women’s field. She took down a boiling No. 7 Eugenie Bouchard in the fourth round and a two-time U.S. Open semifinalist in No. 16 Victoria Azarenka.

    Now a hungry-for-vengeance-in-the-Grand-Slams Williams and one of the hottest left hands in Makarova meet in the top half of the women’s semifinal bracket.

    It’s power and finesse for a trip the final. Read on for the key points of this intense matchup.

Who Has the Historical Edge?

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    Williams has the edge three matches to one. The last time these two played was earlier this year in Dubai, a match Williams won 7-6 (8), 6-0. 

    These two actually met in the 2012 U.S. Open, the year Williams won her fourth title at Flushing Meadows. Williams won in straight sets 6-4, 6-0, in the round of 32.

    "It feels so special to be back in a semifinal," Williams said during the ESPN broadcast. "It's an unbelievable feeling. I'm just so happy to have done it here. Honestly I've had a tough year in the majors and I've gone down by some pretty good players that weren't in the top 10 and you can't underestimate anyone."

    And thanks to the people playing music at Ashe Stadium, Williams has the edge in victory music too: Katy Perry's "Roar" to Makarova's unfortunate "Macarena."

Makarova at the US Open

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    Makarova’s best finish in the U.S. Open prior to Wednesday’s straight-set 6-4, 6-2 win over Victoria Azarenka was a run through the quarterfinals in 2013. She reached that this year and emphatically defeated the two-time U.S. Open finalist.

    Makarova ousted Eugenie Bouchard in the fourth round, thwarting her bid to reach the semifinals in every Grand Slam. Bouchard was clearly affected by the heat and Makarova dusted her and sent her to the shade with the compassion usually reserved for a pesky mosquito.

    Then Makarova stood down the resurgent Azarenka, a woman who has battled injuries all year, and made her look almost as bad as her voice sounded while singing "Happy Birthday."

    "I feel amazing," Makarova said after her quarterfinal. "Finally I'm in a semi-final. I've had five chances but now I'm in a semi-final and it's a great feeling."

Williams at the US Open

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    Five career titles and a 77-9 record at the U.S. Open since her debut 16 years ago in 1998.

    Moving on...

    The U.S. Open was Williams' first Grand Slam back in 1999 and her most recent in 2013. This is the tournament she covets the most since it's on American soil. 

    There's something about playing on the hard courts that brings out the best in Williams. She has won two U.S. Opens in a row and another will give her 18 career Grand Slams, tied with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

    She hasn't dropped a set this tournament, but neither has Makarova.

The Biggest X-Factors

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The left-handedness of Makarova is a challenge for any right-handed player. Righties face lefties so infrequently that the spins and angles are hard to adjust to. 

    Williams faced a lefty in the first round of the tournament in Taylor Townsend, the 18-year-old American wunderkind. But, let's face it, she was an appetizer.

    There's also the matter of distance traveled on the court. Williams has been so dominant largely because she doesn't have to move or scramble much. According to a USA Today story, Williams moves only 44 feet per point. 

    "It confirms something that is quite obvious," said Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams' coach, in USA Today. "Players that play shorter rallies, that have a putaway shot, that serve well and that cut the angles run less than the others."

    Whoever runs the least has a definitive advantage. In some ways that favors Williams and her power off the serve.

Makarova Will Win If...

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    She puts Williams on the move. 

    Makarova made it this far in part because she faced a heat-beaten Bouchard and a rusty Azarenka. Now she faces Williams who's looking to avenge her early exits from the previous three Grand Slams

    Makarova's powerful groundstrokes and passing shots frustrated Azarenka all afternoon. If Makarova puts that kind of pace on the ball she'll be a tough beat.

    ESPN W's Melissa Isaacson wrote, "Against Azarenka, Makarova lost just five points on her first serve and broke Azarenka's serve four times while being broken herself just once, consistently pinning her opponent to the baseline and keeping her off-balance in an efficient 1-hour, 27-minute match. She won 11 of the last 14 points."

    That's the strategy. Doing that will make Williams earn her third straight trip to the final.

Williams Will Win If...

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    She plays loose from the first point.

    In Williams' match against Pennetta, she dropped the first three games and had her serve broken twice. She recovered and won six games in a row, but that was only after she started to uncork her swing and hammer her serves.

    And while Williams can run anything down, she needs to drill her shots and bury Makarova on the baseline. This will keep Makarova from making her run all over the court. Basically what that means is Williams needs to dictate the tone of the match.

    Williams can also turn a match around on the power of her serve. Her service game stole momentum away from Pennetta in her quarterfinal match.

    "I really rely on my serve a lot," Williams said during the ESPN broadcast. "If my serve is off I'm able to rely on my groundstrokes too."


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    This isn't to be contrarian or to select against the favorite just for the sake of selecting against a favorite. Makarova will win this match.

    This is the year of the obscure women's finalist. Women have come out of the woodwork to reach deep into these tournaments. Who really knew Bouchard or Simona Halep before the French Open? Now Peng Shuai and the return of Carolina Wozniacki on the other side of this bracket add to that trend.

    Makarova has had the more difficult road, a road she paved by beating Bouchard and Azarenka. Those kind of wins can boost confidence and give an air of invincibility. 

    Williams admitted during the ESPN broadcast that she herself gets off to slow starts. She can be sluggish. That may have worked against Pennetta, but Makarova is playing the cheddar-sharp kind of tennis Petra Kvitova was playing at Wimbledon. 

    Reaching this far in a Grand Slam is redeeming for Williams given her travails in the previous majors. Makarova isn't going to falter. Like Williams, Makarova hasn't dropped a set.

    Expect a three-setter with Makarova edging Williams for her first ever bid in the finals.

    As a side note, Makarova and her doubles partner, Elena Vesnina, defeated the Williams sisters in doubles.