Wimbledon 2015 Women's Semifinals: Sharapova vs. Williams Preview and Prediction

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2015

Wimbledon 2015 Women's Semifinals: Sharapova vs. Williams Preview and Prediction

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    Serena Williams celebrates her win over Victoria Azarenka in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
    Serena Williams celebrates her win over Victoria Azarenka in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.Associated Press

    No matter how many times Serena Williams defeats Maria Sharapova, their matchup remains intriguing.

    In quarterfinals action, Sharapova defeated American Coco Vandeweghe and Williams beat Victoria Azarenka to set up Thursday's semifinal showdown at the 2015 Wimbledon Championships. 

    It will mark the 20th time the two have faced off, and they've both been atop the WTA Tour over the past three years. Sharapova, ranked No. 4, will reclaim the No. 2 ranking on Monday. 

    The two have won four of the last five Grand Slams. Williams has won the last three. 

    Williams is currently enjoying a 16-match winning streak against Sharapova. Still, the longer the streak goes on, the more compelling the story becomes. No longer just a rivalry between the top two players in women's tennis today, it becomes somewhat of a barometer for Williams' dominance. As long as she lords over the five-time Slam champion, Williams' reign remains secure.

    It's unlikely that Sharapova will ever get on the winning side of this rivalry. However, with one win Sharapova can end Williams' 26-match winning streak at Grand Slam events, a bid for a calendar Slam sweep and a 21st Grand Slam trophy.

    A win would also put Sharapova back in the Wimbledon finals for the first time since 2011

    So much is on the line for these old foes.

Who Has the Historic Edge?

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    Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova pose for pictures during the trophy ceremony of the 2015 Australian Open.
    Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova pose for pictures during the trophy ceremony of the 2015 Australian Open.Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

    Most people know about Williams' 17-2 record against Sharapova. Perhaps worse than the win-loss record is Williams' 32-3 edge in sets won against Sharapova since the Russian last beat the American in 2004.  

    Let that sink in. Sharapova has only taken three sets off Williams in nearly 11 years. 

    Their meeting at the 2015 Australian Open, in which Sharapova pushed the second set to a tiebreaker, was one of the most competitive matches in recent years. The last time Sharapova won a set was in Miami—in 2013. 

How Sharapova Has Looked at Wimbledon So Far

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    Maria Sharapova hits a backhand during her quarterfinal match at Wimbledon.
    Maria Sharapova hits a backhand during her quarterfinal match at Wimbledon.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

    Sharapova received the lighter side of the draw's top half at this year's tournament, opposite Serena and Venus Williams and Azarenka.

    High-seeded players such as Lucie Safarova and Ana Ivanovic were supposed to challenge Sharapova. However, they were knocked out in the earlier rounds, and Sharapova reached the semifinals without facing a player ranked in the WTA Top 30

    In fact, none of the women she faced had advanced beyond the fourth round at a Grand Slam.

    In the quarterfinals, Sharapova defeated No. 47-ranked Coco Vandeweghe, 6-3 6-7 (3-7) 6-2 . In a showdown of two heavy hitters, Sharapova took the first set and seemed to be cruising to a straight-sets victory when Vandeweghe mounted a comeback.

    Sharapova told BBC Sport, "I was pretty dominant in the first set and the beginning of the second but things slipped away after that and I had to regroup."

    Sharapova has been averaging nearly seven double-faults per match, but that hasn't stopped her from going after her second serve.

How Williams Has Looked at Wimbledon So Far

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    Serena Williams reaches to hit a forehand during her quarterfinal match at Wimbledon.
    Serena Williams reaches to hit a forehand during her quarterfinal match at Wimbledon.Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

    Williams has had a tough draw for a No. 1-ranked player. After two uneventful first-round matches, Williams was two points away from losing to British No. 1 Heather Watson. Williams fought stress, an erratic forehand and the British crowd to defeat Watson 6-2, 4-6, 7-5.

    The fourth round was no easier. She faced her sister Venus, a five-time Wimbledon champion. Although Venus produced some spectacular forehand winners, Serena was too steady and consistent for her older sister.

    In the quarterfinals, Williams faced a red-hot Azarenka who had yet to drop a set. Azarenka came out on fire, going 4-4 at the net in the first set. Williams was 0-4 on break points. 

    Williams struggled to put pressure on Azarenka's serve until midway through the second set. Williams then rolled off seven straight games, winning the second set and getting off to a 3-0 lead in the third. She found her service rhythm, which put pressure on Azarenka, who grew frustrated that she could not break Williams despite playing solid tennis.

Biggest X-Factors

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    Maria Sharapova celebrates her quarterfinal win at Wimbledon.
    Maria Sharapova celebrates her quarterfinal win at Wimbledon.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

    Pressure will play a huge role in this match. Who has it and can they handle it?

    With all the focus on Serena Williams and her pursuit of the calendar Slam, Sharapova has been able to roll along with little pressure.

    Players often say, "I have nothing to lose." In Sharapova's case, it might be true. Her relatively easy road to the semifinals likely leaves her fresher than her opponent. However, she has yet to be tested. Even against Vandeweghe, the match never seemed in doubt. 

    Meanwhile, Williams has asked the media to stop asking her about the calendar Slam. It's one of the few things Williams has yet to accomplish in her illustrious career. 

    Another X-factor will be how Sharapova handles the huge step up in quality of opponent. Getting to see a serve as big as Vandeweghe's certainly helps. However, Vandeweghe's serve was more predictable and inconsistent. No matter how stressed Williams feels, it's unlikely she will go 1-for-10 on first serves at any stretch of the match.

    Williams has gone through a frenzied crowd rooting against her, her own sister and a former No. 1-ranked player. Her opponents represent nine Grand Slam wins. Sharapova's opponents have never even reached a Slam semifinal.

    Whether Williams comes out battle-tested or war-weary will be a huge X-factor.

Sharapova Will Win If...

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    Maria Sharapova hits a backhand during her quarterfinal match at Wimbledon.
    Maria Sharapova hits a backhand during her quarterfinal match at Wimbledon.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

    Since undergoing shoulder surgery in 2008, Sharapova has spent a year trying to relocate her serve. Luckily for her, it's not the central weapon in her game.

    Sharapova relies on pouncing on an opponent's weak ball. If it's a weak second serve, she demolishes it. If it's a floater forced by one of her massive forehands, she smacks the ball for a winner.

    To win, Sharapova must reduce her unforced errors and continue to hit a high percentage of clean winners. Sharapova settles into a groove when she's hitting clean winners from both wings. 

    Although she relies less on her serve, she must keep the double-faults in single digits. She's been able to win most of her matches comfortably with 6-8 double-faults. Against Williams, Sharapova can't afford to give away free points.

    She has to bring her best game and hope Williams falters under the pressure. 

Williams Will Win If...

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    Serena Williams takes flight to hit a forehand during her quarterfinal match against Victoria Azarenka.
    Serena Williams takes flight to hit a forehand during her quarterfinal match against Victoria Azarenka.Associated Press

    Williams will win if she remains relaxed, loose and focused. When tight, like against Sabine Lisicki in 2013's round of 16 Wimbledon match, she often overcooks her forehands. 

    Her familiarity with Sharapova's game will go a long way toward putting her at ease. Williams thrives on routine. This will be more of a mental than physical test. Williams serves, moves and volleys better than Sharapova. Williams also has more versatility in her game.

    The key for her will be keeping her emotions in check and her intensity in high gear. 

Prediction

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    Serena Williams waves to the crowd after winning her quarterfinals match.
    Serena Williams waves to the crowd after winning her quarterfinals match.Ian Walton/Getty Images

    When opponents know each other as well as Williams and Sharapova do, adding new wrinkles to the game can prove counterproductive. 

    This is the dilemma facing Sharapova. She knows what she does best—bashing the ball from the baseline—doesn't work against Williams. However, changing her game could result in overthinking, second-guessing and hesitating. That's a no-win situation for Sharapova. Decisive shot selection is one of her strengths.  

    Her best chance rests with the pressure on Williams. The problem is that Williams is so familiar with Sharapova that it will likely help her relax. Nothing soothes the nerves like familiarity, especially when the familiar has been positive for 10 years.

    Williams will feel the pressure. She may even have to break back a couple of times. However, she will feed off the confidence in knowing she's beaten Sharapova so many times. Williams will win in straight sets.