Three years ago, Maria Kirilenko caused quite the scream by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals, stunning fellow Russian Maria Sharapova along the way. Saturday she moved a step closer to equaling that performance, downing Yanina Wickmayer 7-6(4) 6-3 in the third round.
It’s the 25-year-old’s first trip to the second week at Melbourne Park since that run in 2010, which included a win over then-No.2 Dinara Safina. Monday she has a fourth-round battle with none other than Serena Williams.
In five career meetings, Serena has never lost to Kirilenko, though the Russian has stretched her to three sets twice. How does one go about beating the best player in tennis? Kirilenko chuckled at the question.
“Play the ball over the net. Hit every ball on the line. Every time serve aces,” she laughed, the Russian press corps getting a kick out of her response.
But Kirilenko has beaten top five players just four times in her career: Jelena Jankovic in 2007, Sharapova in 2005, that Safina win in Australia and Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2010.
A new-outlook Maria might be producing similar results in 2013. In December, she became engaged to boyfriend Alex Ovechkin, an NHL hockey player. When asked about it on court Saturday after her win, the crowd chimed in with loud boos, obviously disappointed that the good-looking Kirilenko is no long on the market.
“What do you want me to say?” Kirilenko said as she giggled, telling the emcee his accolades for Ovechkin were spot on. It was then that she pulled out her engagement ring from her bag, the diamond rock sparkling under the Australian summer sun.
“No, we haven’t set a date yet.”
With her date booked with Serena for Monday, Kirilenko now has to raise her game to another level to reach her third career Grand Slam quarterfinal.
In 2012, the steady baseliner made the Wimbledon quarterfinals, extending eventual finalist Agnieszka Radwanska to three sets before succumbing. Weeks later, she was an Olympic semifinalist at the All England Club, ending in fourth place with a loss to Victoria Azarenka.
“That gave me a lot of confidence that I can play with these girls,” Kirilenko said last week in Sydney. “I’m still improving every year.”
It was during that run that Kirilenko nabbed the bronze in doubles, pairing with countrywoman Nadia Petrova for third place.
She has begun 2013 with a new doubles partner, however, partnering with doubles veteran Lisa Raymond of the United States. The No.3 seeds here, Maria and Lisa were knocked out Friday by Australian wildcards Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty.
Such a loss may prove to be a blessing in disguise, however. Kirilenko’s full focus now turns to the singles court after a hardened battle with Wickmayer on Saturday.
“I'm going to have a rest day tomorrow and practise and concentrate on the things I need to do,” Kirilenko said about her day off on Sunday.
First on court Saturday, Kirilenko showed steely nerves against the big-hitting Belgian in the first set on Hisense Arena, serving twice to stay in the set twice and then running off five of the final six points of the set after trailing 3-2 in the tiebreak.
While Maria isn’t the biggest hitter from the baseline, the 174cm-tall Russian constructs points beautifully, hitting the corners and moving in when she can. Her net presence has been buoyed by her time on the doubles court.
Yet things will be doubly difficult on Monday when she faces Serena.
“The last time I played her was three sets,” Kirilenko remembered, citing Stanford in 2011. “It's going to be a difficult match of course. Hopefully [difficult] for both of us. She's on fire right now, she's winning everything. It's tough to say what kind of match it's going to be, but I'm playing well.”
With confidence on her side, Kirilenko’s new future-hubby-to-be is half a world away, Ovechkin set to start the NHL season in the States Saturday.
Any advice from Alex on how to play Serena?
“Tomorrow is his first match,” Kirilenko noted. “So, we don't talk about how to play Serena – he has to play his match first.”
Regardless, Kirilenko won’t be wearing her ring on court Monday. She’ll tuck it safe into her bag, hopefully returning to it one match closer to winning some Australian Open bling for herself.