Once known as “Little Maria” behind the higher-ranked and taller Sharapova, Kirilenko swept that nickname away with a vengeance in 2010 by stunning her countrywoman in the first round of the Australian Open in three sets. She’s coming off a solid 2012, in which she made the Wimbledon quarterfinals and was 4th at the Olympics in singles.
Strengths: Kirilenko can hit the ball with the best of them on the pro tour and doesn’t hesitate to play retrieving tennis, either. What Kirilenko does well is take the ball from the middle of the court and attack, particularly off the backhand wing. Over the last few years, she’s grown her short game by playing more doubles, making her more comfortable ending points at net.
Weaknesses: The 25 year old can still find herself bogged down by lower-ranked players, often when she doesn’t start off a match well. Her forehand side is more attackable, as is her second serve. A bigger-hitting player also has the opportunity to move Kirilenko ever further behind the baseline, opening up the court for angled winners or forcing the Russian into running errors.
Opportunities: For a stretch of 2012, Kirilenko was having as good of a season as she could hope when she advanced to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, the semifinals of the Olympics and won Olympic bronze in doubles. But she ended the season more down than up, including a third-round exit at the US Open and a pair of injuries. If she comes in with good form, Kirilenko could make a threat to run to the quarterfinals, as she did in 2010 following her upset over Sharapova.
Threats: While she is a perennial “dark horse,” Kirilenko is taken seriously by the top 10 but seldom feared. The problem with her game is that the package is completed by others who do exactly what she does, but just a tad bit better.
Nicole Pratt, National Women’s Tennis Coach at Tennis Australia:
Kirilenko is a very good competitor. She brings discipline and determination at a very high level every single day. There's very few days that you see that drop off. That's why you see her ranking at No.14: she's very consistent. She is fit and strong, but I think because she's one of the smaller girls on tour that she lacks that firepower and struggles when the ball gets up high and out of the strike zone. She relies on her foot speed to take the ball early at waist height. When she is playing heavy hitters, especially girls that can spin the ball higher, there are match-ups in the draw that don't suit Maria. Depending on the draw that could pose a problem for her. A good result for her is the round of 16 at the Australian Open. She'll bring a consistent level, but I'm not sure she's capable of beating the top players with weapons such as Williams, Azarenka, Kvitova. As I said before, she brings a very high level everyday, which is why you'll see her in the later rounds. She has been around awhile and doesn't get overwhelmed by the big stages. She's not intimidated by anyone.