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Kirilenko keeps Russian flag flying

Maria Kirilenko reaches for a shot during her fourth round match against Shuai Peng.
by Ian Baker
Monday 2 July 2012

A 25-year-old blonde Russian by the name of Maria clenched her fist and beamed a huge smile at reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. But this was not Maria Sharapova (who exited the Championships earlier in the day), it was her friend and namesake Maria Kirilenko who now carries her country’s hopes in the women’s competition.

Certainly on the evidence of this 6-1, 6-7(8), 6-3 victory over Peng Shuai, in two hours and 20 minutes, Kirilenko has a chance of progressing further and finally living up to her full potential.

Big things have been expected of Kirilenko ever since she burst on the scene as a 15-year-old at a similar time to Sharapova. However this victory meant a quarter-final place for only the second time in her career – and the first at Wimbledon.

The similarities between Kirilenko and Sharapova are striking. Not only do they look the same, are an identical age and share the same first name and nationality, Kirilenko’s aggressive groundstrokes make you feel as if you are watching the 2004 champion instead.

Kirilenko stormed through Peng in a first set of complete dominance, first breaking at 2-1 with an exceptional backhand return winner and then taking advantage of a poor service game from the Chinese woman.

Kirilenko’s aggressive returning was causing Peng a problem and she clinched the set with a third break thanks to another sensational return winner, this time on the forehand side.

It appeared as if Peng needed some divine intervention to change the pattern of the match and it came in the form of the weather. Light drizzle forced the players from the court and allowed the No.30 seed to re-focus.

Peng came out a vastly different player after the delay as she looked to get back in the match and improve on last year’s fourth round performance at Wimbledon. The 26-year-old broke early and was 3-1 up when she missed three break points on the Kirilenko serve.

Suddenly the Russian took her game to another level, breaking back to 15 with more bouts of aggression. That only prompted the two-handed Peng to play her best tennis of the match and she was serving for the set at 5-4 after breaking again, thanks to a dreamy drop shot that had even Kirilenko applauding at the audacity of it.

Kirilenko was not to be outdone though, and looked the far better player overall, forcing her way back and throwing caution to the wind on Peng’s next service game. A tiebreak ensued and, just like the pattern of the set, it was topsy-turvy tennis with Kirilenko saving two set points at 6-4 before Peng took her third opportunity to force the decider.

It was the first set Kirilenko had dropped at this year’s Championships. But she always looked on top in the third set, with Peng forced to save a break point in the opening game. The No.17 seed got her break at 2-2 with more big hitting that forced a rare error from Peng, who netted a sitter on the volley.

With that the match was very much up for the woman from Tian Jin. Kirilenko duly broke again when Peng served to stay in the match, to ensure it was not all bad news for Russia on the day of Sharapova’s upset.

Agnieszka Radwanksa, the No. 3 seed, is next up for Kirilenko, who will believe she can cause an upset if she can replicate the form of the first and third sets.

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