Tennis got some of the spotlight during the Sochi Olympic opening ceremony when Maria Sharapova came jogging into Fisht Olympic Stadium brandishing a huge smile and the Olympic torch. The Sochi native was one a group of six decorated Russian Olympians in the torch-lighting finale.
Sharapova, a silver medalist two years ago in London, joined a group that included two-time gold medalist Yelena Isinbayeva (pole vaulter), three-time gold medalist Aleksandr Karelin (wrestling), gold medalist Alina Kabaeva (rhythmic gymnastics), and three-time gold medalists Irina Rodnina (figure skating) and Vladislav Tretyak (hockey). Rodina and Tretyak paired up for the final jog out of the stadium to light the cauldron for the official Olympic flame.
The first is Li, Ivanovic’s probable semi-final opponent, who has plenty of pedigree on these bright blue courts. Twice a finalist, Li has been playing with a fluidity and belief that shows that Carlos Rodriguez’s quiet calm and authority is hitting home. Granted, she owes her place in the quarters to a few missed centimetres, Lucie Safarova catching her on a wild day of 50 unforced errors amid the torrid heat. But her follow-up, dropping just two games to Ekaterina Makarova on Sunday, suggests Li has locked her head back in. She wants this title, there is no doubt.
Can Flavia Pennetta, Li’s equal in age, who is in her first Australian Open quarter-final, beg to differ? She does lead their head-to-head 2-1, but it seems unlikely.
The second is Azarenka, the defending champion here, who, for the third year in a row, knows she will not have to face Serena to win the title. Given the way she fell apart after the latest Williams’ win, at last year’s US Open, that has to be some fillip. And she has been playing well, too. Her return game in particular is on point, her movement good, and her demeanour focused. True, she has probably not been truly tested yet, and that is where Sloane Stephens has an opportunity when the pair meet on Monday. In a repeat of their controversial semi-final here last year, the sense is that Azarenka will try to shut Stephens down quickly. Whether the American can take it to her instead will prove crucial.