INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—They have their detractors, but like them or not, it's hard to deny that Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki are two of the stoutest competitors in tennis. They proved it again, in very different ways, in their semifinal victories here on Friday. Wozniacki took a grooved opponent, Angelique Kerber, out of her groove by changing the tempo and trajectory of her shots—i.e., she went to the moonball—while Sharapova kept firing in the face of some fearless counterpunches from her own opponent, Maria Kirilenko, until she had broken her old friend down for good.
Sharapova leads the head-to-head with Wozniacki 4-2, but Wozniacki won their only match on the slow surface at Indian Wells, 6-1, 6-2, two years ago, and they played a close one on similarly paced court in Key Biscayne last spring, which Sharapova won 6-4 in the the third set. As far as their recent form, Sharapova has been far the superior player for the past year; her semifinal win moved her past Victoria Azarenka to No. 2 in the rankings, while Wozniacki will move from No. 10 to No. 9 after her performance this week.
But Wozniacki’s win over Kerber felt like a big one for her—her celebratory scream at the end had a little extra oomph in it. Not only was it her first victory in her last four matches against the German, but it put her back in a Premier Mandatory final. Still, it will be an uphill climb for Caro against the imposing Russian. Sharapova has been tested in a few close first sets this week, but she hasn’t dropped any of them. She has tended to gain in confidence as she’s gone along, which means that the first set on Sunday will be big for Wozniacki.
As far as the play itself goes, the rallies will pit Sharapova’s powerful drives against Wozniacki’s speed, consistency, and guile—the match, in other words, will reside mostly on Sharapova’s racquet. One question will be: How will Sharapova serve? That shot is a bigger part of her game and her success than it is for Wozniacki, and it can go off at times for Maria. Another question may be: If Sharapova gets a lead, can Wozniacki find a way to change the pace and disrupt the action, as she did against Kerber? Would she try to shoot the moon again? It’s a play that can work on courts like these. When Sharapova was asked about the tactic last night, she did her version of a Mckayla Maroney—she obviously wasn’t impressed. It would be interesting, to say the least, to see how she’d react to a moon shot when she’s watching one come at her from across the court.
The one flaw in Sharapova's recent run of good form is her record in finals—she's 3-6 since the start of 2012. But I’m guessing that, after some nerves and struggles, she'll find a way to deal with whatever comes her way on Sunday.
The Pick: Sharapova in three sets