Serena Williams crushes Maria Sharapova at Australian Open
The New York Times
MELBOURNE, Australia — Maria Sharapova gives herself and her public plenty of time to think as she takes her now-characteristic long pause between first and second serves.
It is a quiet moment, if not a peaceful one, and the crowd in Rod Laver Arena, which included Laver himself, stayed hushed on Tuesday, just as crowds around the world have stayed hushed with Sharapova mulling her options.
But all the reflection and careful preparation on the planet have not helped Sharapova find a way to solve the equation that is Serena Williams.
It is a matter of superior punch, superior speed, superior versatility and, perhaps, even superior willpower, as much as it must pain the driven Sharapova to consider that possibility with the crickets chirping.
Williams versus Sharapova remains the great mismatch — call it the unrivalry — of this tennis era. And although Tuesday’s quarterfinal at the Australian Open did produce a hotly contested first set, it did not produce a close match, as the top-seeded Williams gathered strength despite two on-court visits from medical staff members in the afternoon heat. Williams said the visits were linked to “food poisoning issues from a few days ago.”
Her 6-4, 6-1 victory was her 18th straight against Sharapova, of Russia, and her seventh straight victory in straight sets over her, which led to the latest opportunity to explain just how she can keep using the second best women’s player of the last decade for batting practice.
“I don’t know, something about her game,” Williams said. “I like the way she hits the ball. Plus, when I play her, I know automatically I have to step up my game. I think that makes me play better.”
Sharapova, seeded fifth this year, never stopped hustling on Tuesday but also never posed a serious threat down the stretch.
“It’s obviously always frustrating, but it’s motivating,” Sharapova said. “It’s tough to sit here 30 minutes after the match and of course talk about the match, But that’s part of my job. It’s motivating because she’s at a different level and she makes you go back to the drawing board, not just for me but for many other players. She makes you work, and that’s inspiring.”
Williams, a six-time singles champion here, beat Sharapova to win the title last year. She is a big favorite to reach the final and continue the chase for her 22nd singles title at a Grand Slam event, which would tie her with Steffi Graf for second on the career list.
Williams’s semifinal opponent Thursday will be Agnieszka Radwanska, the No. 4 seed from Poland, who defeated Carla Suárez Navarro of Spain, 6-1, 6-3, in the first quarterfinal Tuesday.
Williams is 8-0 against Radwanska and is a combined 24-4 against the four women remaining in the bottom half of the draw. Only Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who has beaten Williams three times, appears capable of posing a major threat after starting the season in remarkable form and after pushing Williams to three sets in three classic matches in 2015.
But as last year’s United States Open proved, perhaps for good, it is best to play the matches at hand before getting caught up in the matchups to come.
“Nothing’s guaranteed in sports; I still have to win two matches against potentially two extremely tough opponents,” Williams said in what might have sounded like a platitude a few months ago.
In September, Williams held all four major singles titles and was chasing a true Grand Slam in New York, but she ended up caught in the brambles as she was ambushed by the unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci of Italy in the semifinals.
It was one of the biggest surprises in the sport’s long history, and Williams — hurting in spirit and body — did not play another official match the rest of the year, which helps explain why Radwanska went on to win the prestigious WTA Finals in Singapore.
After withdrawing from the Hopman Cup team event this month because of knee pain, Williams has looked unencumbered at the Australian Open, sweeping through her first five matches without the loss of a set.
She seems subdued compared with other years, not just focused but closer to zen, although there were still bared teeth and clenched fists and selectively timed roars against Sharapova.
“Everything from here on out, every match, is a bonus for me,” Williams said. “I don’t have to win this tournament or any other tournament for as long as I live. I really want to enjoy being a professional tennis player and playing on Grand Slam courts, moments like this.”
Sharapova made a credible attempt at making it less enjoyable on Tuesday, breaking Williams’s serve in the opening game and then finishing off her own first service game with an ace.
Sharapova had fired 21 aces in her quarterfinal victory over the Swiss teenager Belinda Bencic. Could there be many more to come against a champion who regularly makes a hearty meal of Sharapova’s serve?
The answer would be no (Sharapova finished with only three aces), but her gutsy second serves and Williams’s fluctuating form kept her in contention for a time, if only a time.
Sharapova’s best chance came with Williams serving at 4-4 in a tense game that stretched to four deuces. Williams faced two break points, saving the first with a flat ace into the corner and the second with a forehand winner after another big first serve.
In another long game, Williams then broke Sharapova to take the set.
The rest, as so often, was postscript.
“I’ve been playing this whole week aggressive, and I think I didn’t start out playing that way,” Williams said. “After the first set, I just knew I wanted to start playing the way I have been, that got me to the quarterfinals.”
She has been playing and winning against Sharapova here since 2005, when Williams saved three match points in the semifinals and beat Sharapova, 2-6, 7-5, 8-6, on the way to the title.
It was the end of a two-match losing streak against Sharapova for Williams, and the beginning of her 18-match winning streak, which has now stretched beyond a decade.
The Australian Open has grown up along the way, adding a third stadium with a retractable roof and, this year, a digital wall that wraps around the court in Laver Arena at ground level and makes the other Grand Slam tournaments look like 20th-century relics.
But all the new amenities have not changed the equation. Williams plus Sharapova equals another Williams victory.
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