Made in the Shade

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Ekaterina Makarova reached her first Grand Slam semifinal with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Victoria Azarenka. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—Alright world, brace yourself for unending “Hey, Makarova” and other “Macarena/Makarova” jokes. Today, Ekaterina Makarova (I had to grab my left hand as it began to type “He. . .), beaten four times in Grand Slam quarterfinals, advanced to her first Slam semi. And the way she played made some wonder how it took her so long.

“Before, I was thinking I made a great (quarterfinal) result and the tournament is over for me,” Makarova admitted in a television interview immediately following the match. “I was just going out there and enjoying it. This time, I wanted to keep going.”

She accomplished her mission with an impressive, 6-4, 6-2 win over the woman who was hoping to play her third consecutive U.S. Open final, Victoria Azarenka. They did not quite reach the 90-minute mark in duration, but the quality of the match was high all the way—even though Azarenka’s public relations representative let it be known afterward that she was suffering from a case of food poisoning. Azarenka didn’t practice at all yesterday, but it may not have made a difference. For Azarenka was served a different but no less debilitating toxin today in Makarova’s waspish, lefty game.

Unlike many left-handers in this era of savage baseline duels, Makarova, like Petra Kvitova, is unmistakably a southpaw. Meaning, if you watch her it’s pretty easy to conjure up pleasant images of other, volatile lefty forehands, or even John McEnroe’s hook serve. Makarova used her lefty juju to good effect at the service notch, even though she put only half of her first serves into the correct box. The ones she did stick helped her to win the point 81 percent of the time.

“I think she was really solid,” Azarenka admitted. “She did serve really well, especially in the important moments. It gave her a lot of opportunities to make winners and everything. But, you know, even though I felt like I still had chances, I just didn't really play selective, or the right tennis at the right moment. But she definitely stepped it up. She was really consistent.”

It’s a pleasure to report that many of the critical points in this match were decided by unreturned shots or outright winners, rather than errors. Azarenka broke in the very first game, but Makarova stepped up and broke right back when Azarenka served at 3-2. An Azarenka double fault opened the door at deuce, after which Makarova smacked a cross-court backhand return winner and followed with a decisive down-the-line backhand winner. That made it 3-3, and the caliber of the shotmaking only continued to rise.

Azarenka threatened in the ninth game, but she made a backhand error at break point and Makarova ultimately escaped with a 5-4 lead. Still shaky, Makarova allowed Azarenka a 40-15 lead in the next game. But an Azarenka double fault again proved harmful. It helped Makarova get back to deuce, after which Azarenka made a forehand error. Makarova hit an excellent service return to start the ensuing set point, and Azarenka drilled her forehand reply into the net.

It looked as if Azarenka might turn the tide in the second game of the new set. It was the most bitterly contested game of the match, and it featured a stirring comeback by Azarenka from a 0-40 deficit; she belted two winners and Makarova made a backhand error. The women then staged a three-deuce tug of war until a third-shot backhand winner and a sizzling backhand down-the-line winner secured the game for Azarenka.

That was the kind of game that might have left Makarova rattled and turned the match around. But as Makarova said, “I didn't got nervous because she played so good those all of points. I had one more break point, too. But still she played so aggressive. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I missed some easy shots’ or something and get nervous. I just stayed calmly in my game.”

Makarova also survived a break point in the next game, but she went on to hold, and that put her over the hump. Two holds later, Makarova broke Azarenka to take a 4-2 lead that the No. 16 seed was unable to challenge the rest of the way.

Makarova won this match going away, and Azarenka was classy enough not to assign blame to her physical condition. “You know what? I don't really want to talk about it. I just want to give credit to my opponent. She played really well today. . . That's it. I'm out of the tournament.”

Azarenka sometime seems jaded (who wouldn’t be, given the surprises and setbacks that she’s had to endure in recent months), while Makarova appears to be flush with optimism and enthusiasm. The Russian said the other day, “I'm feeling pretty good. I'm just actually enjoying to go out there, to fight. I'm really enjoying my game now. I'm feeling good physically, technically, and really happy that I'm in quarterfinals again.”

So Makarova now rolls into the semifinals, the second surprise guest along with Peng Shuai. This has been a unusual U.S. Open on the women’s side, but not an inexplicable one. The theme that has been developing for a while now is that Serena Williams has been the dam holding back a potentially wild and unpredictable flood of unexpected champions. None of the other women—not Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Kvitova, or even Azarenka is in a position to take over and impose order in the game.

By the end of this week, who knows? Perhaps even Serena will have become what all those other women are: A veritable contender, but not a prohibitive favorite.

That brings us back to Makarova, who bears an eerie resemblance to Steffi Graf (she’s proud of it, but the two have never met). She hasn’t been able to channel the German icon’s winning ways, but she does share another of Graf’s qualities. Makarova is so shy that you’re just as liable as she to blush when she smiles.

Makarova was asked by a reporter today to tell a little bit more about herself. She replied: “Well. . . it's tough to say something about yourself. I think I'm trying to stay in the shade, you know, a little bit, to be in my world. I'm not using that much like social networks. I can say that I'm maybe closed a little bit. But I'm really enjoying to play on the big stage, the big courts with all this crowd.”

It’s a good thing that her aversion to the limelight only goes so far. She admitted in her presser that she knows how to do the Macarena, and when asked to show us she said, “Next time, on stage.”

Sunday, perhaps?

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