Russia may not repeat its women’s singles trifecta from the last Olympic Games, but Maria Sharapova is just one match from ensuring they at least bring home the gold again after her 6-2, 6-3 London 2012 dismissal of countrywoman Maria Kirilenko.
The powerhouse nation of women’s tennis is still in the hunt to take home two of the three singles medals with Sharapova assured of at least silver and her semi-final victim, Kirilenko, now relegated to the bronze-medal play-off.
With their age, first name and allegiance in common, the inevitable calls of “C’mon Maria” and “C’mon Russia” from one punter in the crowd were sure to draw laughter around Wimbledon’s No.1 Court. But it was Maria Kirilenko who would need the encouragement most against her heavier-hitting opponent.
While the ever-consistent Kirilenko hit just five unforced errors for the match, she lacked the big weapons to punish Sharapova on grass.
The telling statistic came from the No.3 seed’s racket; Sharapova in total control with a match-winning 35 winners to Kirilenko’s seven, including 20 off the forehand alone.
"My previous meeting against Maria was really tough. She had so many chances to win that match and you know she has been having such a great grass court season and getting to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon," Sharapova said.
"Obviously it's tough to play a Russian on the other side of the net, but I'm happy that one of us can go for gold."
Serving to stay in the first set at 2-5, Kirilenko brought up set point for her opponent with a backhand into the net. Sharapova, dragged wide on the following point, made the most of the chance, ripping a backhand up the line to bag the opener 6-2 after 36 minutes.
With Kirilenko also through to the women’s doubles semi-finals later in the day her sharpness at net shone through when serving at 15-30. Lunging for a Sharapova passing shot, she stopped the ball in its tracks; the stab-volley winner helping her to hold for 1-1.
When Sharapova double-faulted to hand the 16th seed her first break of the match for 3-2, Kirilenko raced to the chair with a spring in her step. However, the momentum shift was quickly brought to a halt with Sharapova screaming through the last four games to close out the first of the women’s singles semi-finals after 1hr 29mins to book a place in her first Olympic final.
"I feel although we play for our country and we represent it on a daily basis, I think that at the Olympics, there's so much more pride. You're doing it for the country. I mean, especially in Russia, it's such a huge part of our culture," Sharapova said.
She will face fourth-seeded American Serena Williams for the gold medal on Saturday.