Brisbane: S. Williams d. Sharapova

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I don’t know how many New Year’s resolutions Serena Williams made Tuesday night, but I can guess one of them: Keep your foot planted on the throat of Maria Sharapova.

Williams kept that resolution in the very first week of WTA play in 2014, in the semifinals of Brisbane. Unable to rely on her greatest weapon until the very end, facing a resurgent and customarily determined opponent, and hampered slightly by the measure of condescending contempt she feels for the woman who is her legitimate rival only in press room, Williams again throttled Sharapova, this time by the score of 6-2, 7-6 (7).

This was Williams' 15th win over Sharapova against just two losses—both of which occurred an astonishing nine years ago—and it pushed her sets-won advantage to 31-7, and her hard-court edge to 9-1. Yet there were positives that the always game and courageous Sharapova will take away from this one, given that she’s just rounding into form after a layoff of almost six months.

The ball striking was excellent from the outset in this match, at least until the fourth game, when Sharapova was broken via an all too familiar double-fault and a third-shot forehand error. Williams made life tougher for herself by allowing Sharapova to break back with ease in the next game. But Sharapova was unable to hold the pace. Williams broke her again, and then held for 5-2. Sharapova began and ended the next game with double faults, and the set was gone.

This was particularly bad news for the WTA No. 4 because Williams herself was struggling at the service line. Serena made just 44 percent of her first serves in the set (compared to 64 percent by Sharapova), yet she not only won the set—she dominated it.

It was different in the next installment. The first three games of the second set were all breaks, with sloppy play and poor serving alternating with some wonderful shot-making and excellent rallies. It was pretty clear by the end that while the serve can be a potent weapon for both women (as well as a liability for Sharapova), the return was the most effective tool for either player. Quality returns and erratic serves are a formula for numerous breaks; there were 10 in all—in just 20 games, plus a tiebreaker.

When Williams broke Sharapova in the eighth game of the second set and held to lead 5-4, it appeared that the end was near. But Sharapova remained poised. Her movement and groundstrokes were excellent throughout this match, and she also attacked the net successfully at a few critical moments. She withstood the blistering pace of Williams’ groundstrokes, and dispelled the idea that her own game would break down after four or five exchanges. Thus, it all came down to a tiebreaker.

Williams hit a gorgeous forehand approach winner to record the first mini-break for 4-2, then served with a 4-3 lead. But she threw in a pair of double faults, and Sharapova found herself alive and serving at 5-4—whereupon she drilled a double fault of her own.

Williams stepped up at that big moment. She nailed a cross-court forehand winner to regain control of the tiebreaker at 6-5. She was unable to convert the ensuing match point, nor another one she earned at 7-6. But at 8-7, the first serve that had deserted Williams for most of this match made a timely and dramatic reappearance, as she closed it out with an ace.

Stat of the Match: Williams won despite putting just 41 percent of her first serves into play. Sharapova’s first-serve percentage also declined as the match went on; she finished with a mediocre 55 percent success rate.

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