Brisbane semis: Sharapova pretty close, but still far way from beating Serena

Serena USO 13 TR MALT3396

Serena is now 15-2 versus Sharapova

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Serena is now 15-2 versus Sharapova

BRISBANE – Maria Sharapova will more than likely have more shots at Serena Williams in the future, but in the past few years she hasn’t had many opportunities as she did in the second set of her 6-2, 7-6 (7) loss to Williams in the Brisbane International semis. Williams didn’t serve well at all, only putting in 41 percent of her first serves, which game the Russian chances to break time and time again. And after a first set that saw Sharapova contest some gorgeous but too few great points, she actually broke the world’s greatest server on plenty of occasions in the second set.

But Williams returned competently and viciously all match long and in a second set that featured numerous end-to-end rallies with searing  laser shots and great defense by two women who are primarily known for their offense, Sharapova couldn’t hang on to an early break. While her forehand was just as heavy as Serena’s and she stood strong slinging low backhands, she couldn’t push Williams back enough on her own service games and that proved her undoing.

But some of the points were delicious to take in. Williams, who hasn’t lost a match since August, had a blast. “I think it was fun,” she said. “Some of those points were really long and the intensity level was so high.  Maria was hitting the ball extremely hard and I was retrieving a lot of balls.  So was she.  My gosh, she was getting so many balls back. So, yeah, few times I smiled out there because I was really enjoying myself.”

Stroke to stoke, Sharapova is close to matching Williams, but she doesn’t her vaunted serve and that is what has led to Williams 15-2 record against her. With that said, she should have been able to bring the match into a third set, especially after Williams double-faulted twice to go down 5-4 lead in the tie break. And then what did the towering blonde do? She double faulted herself to 5-5. Serena then took over a long rally when Sharapova landed a crosscourt forehand short, and then Williams skied up in the air, smoked a forehand crosscourt winner and then screamed and fist pumped right in the direction of Sharapova’s Friends’ Box, which included her new coach Sven Groeneveld and her boyfriend (and Serena’s former friend) Grigor Dimitrov.

Serving with a match point , Williams went with a drop shot-lob combo, but Sharapova scooped up the dropper, Serena’s half volley lob was not deep enough and Sharapova- who disdains standard overheads – actually got some hang time and put one away to tie it at 6-6.

But then she dumped a routine backhand into the net, which was critical error number one. Serena gave the advantage right back by flying a backhand long. At 7-7, Sharapova had a another big chance and couldn’t convert when she missed a wide open inside out forehand. “Obviously I can look back and say it’s great to be at this level and compete against her and put myself in a good position after not playing for a few months,” she said. ‘But in the moment I’m pulling my teeth out because I missed that shot.”

On Williams’ second match point, she boomed a 171-kilometer per hour ace to win it. Sharapova, who only managed to contest one match post-Wimbledon due to shoulder trouble, was happy and remorseful at the same. She loved the intensity of the battle and can put the loss in perspective, but those kind of chances don’t come along every week against Williams.

“A few missed chances,” she said. “You know, tough being a little, a small break up in that tiebreaker and also missing that forehand just a little bit wide Overall, happy that I can compete at this level in my third match back.  I really have to take the positives out of this, because I have been struggling for a few months.  To be able to come out on the court and put myself in good positions out there against someone that’s been playing amazing tennis is a good sign for me. It was definitely a good week and a good test.”

Sharapova, who won the 2008 Aussie Open title and last year, went down to Li Na in Melbourne in the semis, said that she did gain a bit of confidence during her week in Brisbane. But if she plays Williams at the Aussie Open, will she give herself another real chance? 14 losses in a row to the game’s most accomplished player is tough to figure out.

“I just found 14 ways how not to win,” she said. “ That’s the only way you can look at it.  I could be in a worse position and never face her, which means I would be losing much earlier in tournaments than I want to be. So if I’m giving myself opportunities to go into tournaments and fight through matches to get to a position to play against her, I consider myself very lucky to be able to play against her and give myself another chance to try and beat her.”

Williams will face her main rival, Victoria Azarenka, who took a trying 1-6 6-3 6-4 win over Jelena Jankovic, who was disappointed in how she lost control of a contest that she dictated in at times. Yet Azarenka became No. 1 largely because she is confident that she can unlock the key to her inside the baseline attack against anyone. Her serve has been largely ineffective during the week, but if she can get a high percentage in against Williams, she should be able to go toe to toe with her from the back court, just like she did every time they faced of on hard courts last year.

A Serena vs. Vika final to start the year is perfect start to the 2014 WTA season and perhaps a prelude to their first Aussie Open final.

“It’s a good [rivalry],” Serena said.  “She’s so intense on the court, and then off the court she’s so cool.  So I think that’s what makes the rivalry the best, is because when you step on the court I don’t know her and she doesn’t know me and we fight like crazy. When it’s over it’s over.  There is a lot of mutual respect there.”

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