Serena turns back Sharapova swiftly in 2nd set

MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams‘ superior athleticism again made the difference against Maria Sharapova.

After a neck-and-neck opening set, Williams ran away with a 6-4, 6-1 win Tuesday to advance to the Australian Open semifinals, the American’s 18th straight win in the rivalry.

Despite the one-sided history, Sharapova matched Williams in intensity and velocity in the beginning.

In a titanic first set, No. 5 Sharapova broke Williams in the opening game and then held. The Russian stood firm on the baseline, taking balls early and keeping her opponent on her heels.

But after falling into a 2-0 hole, Williams reeled off six of the next eight games to take the early advantage. At 4-4, Williams fended off two break points in a grueling game. In the next game, Williams finally put away an open-court volley, her fourth set point, to secure the set.

“Yeah, it was super intense,” Williams said in her on-court interview. “[Maria] is an intense, focused player who was once No. 1 and has won Grand Slams for a reason.”

The second set was vintage Williams. The world No. 1, who has now won 12 straight matches Down Under, was up 5-0 before Sharapova finally won a game to avoid the bagel. In a rivalry that dates back well more than a decade, only twice has Williams won a 6-0 set.

“I have been playing this whole week aggressively, but it did not start out that way in the first set,” Williams said. “I knew I had to be.”

Thus, 4,088 days have passed since the last time Sharapova upended Williams, at the 2004 WTA Finals.

Sharapova, who came into the match with a tour-high 52 aces in this tournament, could muster only three in this encounter and was broken four times.

Williams will next play Agnieszka Radwanska, who beat Carla Suarez-Navarro 6-1, 6-3 in 1 hour, 21 minutes early in the day.

Radwanska committed only 10 errors, frustrating her opponent throughout the encounter to become the first Polish player to reach the final four Down Under.

“Very, very pleased,” Radwanska said in her on-court interview. “I knew it was going to be tough. She is a very tough player. I knew everything was going to come back to me. Just tried to be focused.”

Radwanska broke Suarez Navarro three times in a scant 28-minute opening frame. The second was more competitive, with the No. 10 Spaniard stepping into the court often, maintaining the pressure on her opponent. But at 4-3, Radwanska broke Suarez Navarro and then held on in the next game to prevail.

As hot as she has been, Radwanska is fortunate to still be alive in Melbourne. In the last round, she pulled off a dramatic 6-7 (6), 1-6, 7-5 win against Anna-Lena Friedsam — a match in which the German blew a third-set lead and suffered from severe cramps.

“Just happy I had a day off between matches,” Radwanska said. “You go on court and you feel good that you could win. The second week of Grand Slams, it doesn’t matter who you are playing.”

Radwanska, the No. 4 seed from Krakow, Poland, opened up this season with a win at the Shenzhen Open, her 18th career title. In her past 25 matches, she has sported a healthy 22-3 record.

It wasn’t that long ago, she was all but forgotten. After a largely disappointing 2015, Radwanska ended last season with the biggest title of her career at the WTA Finals. The fact that she qualified at all was an amazing story. Following the US Open, Radwanska was three spots out of the final spot.

In 2012, Radwanska reached her lone Grand Slam final, falling to Williams in a tense three-set Wimbledon championship.

“She’s a great defender and a great girl, and regardless who gets to the final, it will be a good thing,” Williams said. “But I am going to do my best.”

Last year, Williams won here, kick-starting a run to a near season Slam. Having swept through the first three majors, Williams fell in the semifinals of the US Open, ending a shot at rare history.

Admittedly fried both mentally and physically, Williams then took the next four months off. When she returned in Melbourne, Williams withdrew from her first match at the Hopman Cup, citing knee inflammation, eventually withdrawing from the event.

But through five rounds here, Williams has looked very much the No. 1 player she has been for the past 154 weeks. She has yet to drop a set, a welcome sign for a player who found herself in the crucible of three-setters a year ago.

Williams is now only two wins away from her 22nd major, which would tie Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era.

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