Pity the losing semifinalists at a Grand Slam event. Unlike the losing finalist, their names will not appear alongside that of the winner in the history books. Losing semifinalists are like Olympic athletes who finish fourth. Or the college football team that ranks fifth in the new four-team NCAA playoff format.
The operative term is familiar: "So close, yet so far." And this year at the Australian Open, the expression seems particularly apt. Madison Keys, one of the losing semifinalists, appeared close in her quest to reach a major final. The other, Ekaterina Makarova, seemed further than ever from realizing that ambition anytime soon.
Keys, who had to fight her way through the draw from an unseeded position, lost to world No. 1 and top seed Serena Williams -- but not before she fought off eight match points in a match that lasted an hour and 24 minutes and ended 7-6 (5), 6-2. Makarova, seeded No. 10, was crushed in 87 minutes 6-3, 6-2, by pitiless No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova.
This was a tale of two beginnings, both of which might offer hints about what lies in store for each of the losers. Makarova has been to the quarterfinals or better at the past three Grand Slam events (quarterfinals at Wimbledon, semis at the US Open, both in 2014). She had break-point opportunities in the first service game. But Sharapova put the kibosh on that and swiftly turned the tables, breaking Makarova's serve for 2-0 after Makarova was unable to salt away a hold point.
By the third game, Makarova was making faces at her coach up in the player guest box. She projected a fatalism so powerful that you wondered if she were lining up to take a Sharapova serve or to receive a blindfold and a cigarette. The games rolled by, the only bright spot for Makarova a break in the sixth game that allowed her to get back to 3-4. But Sharapova broke her right back -- then won five consecutive games to build a 6-3, 4-0 lead.
Makarova is an enigma. At 26, she's only marginally younger than her fellow Russian countrywoman, Sharapova. Sharapova is an imposing 6-foot-2, but Makarova suffers no handicap either at 5-10. Furthermore, she has the advantage of being left-handed, but the edge becomes a liability in her matchup with Sharapova. Despite her height and conspicuous, lean athleticism, Makarova just doesn't generate a lot of power. Thus, even the potentially wicked lefty serve in the advantage court swings right into Sharapova's wheelhouse on her stronger backhand side -- and slowly enough for Sharapova to tee off on it.
Sharapova played an excellent match. She won 81 percent of her first-serve points and clocked 23 winners to go with her customarily high count of 26 unforced errors. Makarova had just 11 winners, but she committed 29 unforced errors. On this sunny day in Australia, she couldn't have found the court if you handed her a topographic map of Melbourne.
Makarova has played well at recent majors, and this excellent run (during which she upset the No. 3 seed, Simona Halep) will enable her to crack the elite top 10 at No. 9. Yet she remains a player who doesn't appear convinced that she belongs in the semifinals. She has trouble elevating her game once she arrives in a place where she can really do some damage. She seems to lack that essential hallmark of a great player, the zest for competition.
In that regard, the contrast with Keys is telling. The American girl is just 19 years old, and this has been her deepest penetration into a Grand Slam. Yet she looked utterly comfortable and tackled the occasion, with all of its perils, with enthusiasm and determination. There was no sign of self-doubt or hesitation.
Keys went right to work, breaking Williams in the first game. She then held but gave back the break in the sixth game for 3-all. The women continued to trade holds, and once again Keys showed that when it comes to her game, the atomic serve and bludgeoning forehand are just the wave, not the water. For Keys is a natural. Her coordination is superb for a teenager who tapes out to 5-foot-10, she's quick, her timing is near perfect and she seems to know what to do, and when, during any given point. The bonus is her ability to hit a winner from anywhere on the court and her willingness to exploit it.
The tiebreaker was instructive. Keys surrendered the first mini-break on just the third point but settled down and kept it close as Williams built a 6-3 lead. Keys responded to the first two set points by belting aces, but she was unable to return Williams's final, heavy serve, and the first set was gone.
Williams took advantage of a predictable letdown in the next game and grabbed the break. She broke Keys again for 4-1 and roared through the next game, as well. With her back to the wall, Keys survived the 10-minute seventh game despite Williams reaching match point seven times. By the time it was over, even the legions of Serenaphiles jammed into Rod Laver Arena were showering Keys with approval.
Enough of that, Williams decided. Keys' heroics had driven the top seed to play with the brand of all-in intensity and physical abandon that she didn't always produce in 2014. Both she and Keys were just whaling on the ball like flat-footed punchers throwing haymakers.
But Williams proved to be the steadier hand. Keys dispatched the first match point Williams had on her serve with a terrific service return. But Williams worked her way back to ad-in and finally closed out the match with (what else?) an ace. It was a rousing demonstration of power tennis that had all the pundits gushing and the Keys bandwagon overloaded with believers. "I'm a big fan of Madison," Williams confessed to ESPN's Tom Rinaldi after the match. "She's awesome -- so positive. It was an honor to play her."
As a loser, Makarova did not do an immediate interview, but as she left the court, Chris Evert tried to put the best spin on the blowout by remarking, "She'll take some positives out of this."
Perhaps. But I have my doubts.