Ekaterina Makarova does not have four-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova’s sterling resume at tournaments all over the world, but she has much to boast about at the Australian Open, where for the second straight year, she has reached the quarterfinals.
Last year, when she stunned a hobbled Serena Williams, it was thought by some to be a one-off, but the powerful left-hander has showed once again just what an effective player she can be as on Monday, she hit through world No.5 Angelique Kerber 7-5 6-4, no easy task considering that the German is very fast and is as steady as a backboard.
"I don't know why, but I'm so comfortable here – I enjoy the city, stadium, everything," Makarova said. "Maybe I do well here because I've rested a couple of months, it's the beginning of the year and I really want to play again – whatever it is that helps me here, I'm so happy. I really enjoy being here."
While Makarova is not as well known as fellow Russians Sharapova, two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, or even world No.14 Maria Kirilenko, who has also had solid Grand Slam singles results and has become a consistent top 20 player, Makarova is no slouch.
At the end of last season, the now world No.19 cracked the top 20 for the first time, not only reaching the final eight of the Australian Open, but also reaching the semis of Birmingham and Seoul.
The 24-year-old owns wins over Kirilenko, No.1 Victoria Azarenka, former Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone, Russian former top five player Nadia Petrova and Russian former No.2 Vera Zvonareva, whom she upset in the third round of 2012 Australian Open before she took down the mighty Serena.
Clearly, Makarova plays her fellow Russians very tough. But she hasn't been able to make a serious dent in Sharapova, whom she knows just a little bit on a personal level.
“She's living in America and I'm in Russia, so we didn't meet a lot of times,” she said. “But, yeah, we say hi and some words.”
One of the rare players to have a female coach, Makarova has a very good serve and can rip her forehand to the corners, but besting the red hot Sharapova is going to be a gigantic challenge.
World No.2 Sharapova has only lost five games in four matches, the fewest games lost en route to the Australian quarters since the introduction of the 128-player draw in 1988. She's hitting all of her spots with her serve, has cranked up her much feared return of serve, and is pounding the ball off the ground. Plus she’s in a good space personally with her new [younger] man, Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov, at her side.
She’s been able to take of Makarova in all four of their previous meetings, including their 2012 Aussie quarterfinal, a 6-2 6-3 win for the 2008 champion.
"The last few years we've played a lot of times and I never beat her, so I really want to play her again," Makarova said. "She's playing really well. She's playing so aggressive and staying in the court. She's winning a lot of matches. But I have some plans against her.”
Sharapova is way too experienced to overlook Makarova. While she has reached the quarterfinals or better in her past 15 tournaments and has reached the semifinals or better in three of her last four Grand Slams (she won 2012 Roland Garros, but was upset by Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round of Wimbledon), she knows that’s not all just because of great form, but because she pays attention to each and every opponent.
"It's not about waiting to see where you are in the semis or finals, it's about who's ahead of you," Sharapova said. "I have to do the right things to beat her in the quarterfinals. If I win that quarterfinal, it's moving onto the next one – that's how I go about a tournament.”