Maria Sharapova started well against Serena Williams at the Australian Open.
But in tennis, it’s all about who wins the last point and for the 18th straight meeting, it was Williams who was happier at the handshake.
Williams moved into the semifinals with a 6-4 6-1 win over Sharapova on Australia Day and given she is similarly dominant against her next foe, Agnieszka Radwanska, there’s little to suggest her tournament will come to an end Thursday.
While one high-profile rivalry produced a winner, another much anticipated matchup takes place Thursday when Novak Djokovic confronts Roger Federer after both won in straight sets in the men’s quarterfinals.
“Something about her game,” Williams, bidding for a 22nd grand slam title in Melbourne, said to reporters when asked why she has so much success against Sharapova. “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.
“When I play better, when I’m forced to play better, I don’t know, I do well.”
The World No. 1 was seen by the tournament doctor twice and appeared to be given a fruit bar — her coach Patrick Mouratoglou told reporters she was dizzy; Williams said she’d suffered from food poisoning a “few days ago” — but even an under-the-weather Williams can win grand slams.
Remember last year’s French Open? Williams triumphed despite being sick for most of the second week.
Indeed, the way Williams dispatched a surely crestfallen Sharapova, all signs point to the American landing in Saturday’s finale, perhaps against the surging Victoria Azarenka.
Ominously for her rivals, Mouratoglou said Williams’ level this year in the infancy of the campaign is better than in 2015, when she won three majors and came within two victories of achieving the rare calendar year grand slam.
“I don’t think last year she had a big year in terms of level of play,” Mouratoglou told a pair of reporters in the player restaurant. “She had a big year in terms of results. But there were very few matches where I was satisfied.
“She won through her qualities, her competitiveness, with her confidence, serve, but the level of play wasn’t fabulous. I think since the beginning of (this) tournament she plays very well.”
Sharapova hadn’t beaten Williams since 2004 but taking a 2-0 lead on a sunny day, with temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), must have given fans of the Russian, who is the world’s richest female athlete, hope.
Williams woke up, however, and sent Sharapova into a temporary tailspin with a crushing return in the fourth game, later breaking for 2-2.
From then on, despite a ragged Williams, Sharapova always faced an uphill battle.
The five-time grand slam winner fended off three consecutive break points at 3-4, prompting Sharapova to roar “come on” and her coach, Sven Groeneveld, to leap out of his chair in the players’ box at Rod Laver Arena.
The momentum swinging, Sharapova manufactured two break points in the ensuing game.
Williams likely has the best serve the women’s game has ever seen and it rescued her on both occasions. She struck an ace out wide and two points later a fine serve set up a routine forehand winner.
Sharapova, with their history, needed a bit of luck on her side but didn’t get it.
Down 5-4 and 0-30, she rallied to get to game point.
What happened next?
Williams’ backhand cross court clipped the net, fell over and landed on the line. Sharapova had no chance.
And on a fourth set point, the set was Williams’ in 55 minutes.
“I feel like if it was five-all, the momentum would have been a little bit different than going into where she played a really great beginning of the second set,” said Sharapova.
Out came the doctor between sets, yet Williams didn’t stutter. She shored up her errors and Sharapova offered little resistance.
Sharapova struck a career-high 21 aces Sunday against Belinda Bencic when rain forced their encounter to be played indoors, but Mouratoglou doubted she could do it again. He was right.
Sharapova hit only three Tuesday to go along with seven double faults.
It’s far from an irregular occurrence when they play.
In their last nine matches — dating back to 2013 — only once has Sharapova notched more aces than double faults. Overall in those matches, the numbers read 16 aces and 51 double faults.
Sharapova said her lopsided record against Williams is, not surprisingly, a source of frustration. But she added it was “inspiring.”
“It’s obviously always frustrating,” she told reporters. “I mean, it’s motivating. It’s motivating because she’s at a different level. She makes you go back to the drawing board, not just for me, but for many other players. She makes you work. That’s inspiring.”
Guile and spin
Radwanska, who sports an 0-8 record against Williams, will need to be inspired to overcome the title-holder.
The Pole beat Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro 6-1 6-3 in a battle of players who employ guile and spin rather than power. Suarez Navarro’s chances weren’t aided by a knee injury that’s hindered her during the tournament.
Radwanska, the fourth seed, won the 2015 year-end championships — with Williams absent. Upsetting Williams would make for a gargantuan surprise.
Federer, Djokovic to collide
When the men’s draw for the tournament was made, eyes were drawn to a potential Federer-Djokovic clash in the semifinals. They played in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals last year, each time Djokovic prevailing.
They were untroubled Thursday. Federer, the 17-time grand slam champion, progressed first, beating sixth seed Tomas Berdych 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 6-4 to earn a spot in the last four at the Australian Open for a record extending 12th time.
Djokovic, the No. 1 seed, swept past the aggressive Kei Nishikori 6-3 6-2 6-4 in the night session. Nishikori upset the Serb at the 2014 U.S. Open but now has tasted defeat five straight times against 28-year-old.
Nishikori’s nagging injuries show no sign of slowing. He took an injury timeout following the second set and played with heavy strapping to his left leg for most of the third.
Djokovic thus rebounded from his whopping 100 unforced errors in a five-set win Sunday against French counterpuncher Gilles Simon. He revealed that he didn’t practice Monday in an effort to rest — mentally.
Federer and Djokovic contest a 45th head to head, the series tied at 22-22. Djokovic, though, has won their last three tussles at grand slams.