Serena forced into top gear to tame Sharapova

Those ingrates to whom the miracle of the Williams sisters has lost its freshness will have been especially vexed that Maria Sharapova, one of the only females in the species competent to interrupt their duopoly here, should be flung into the path of Serena as early as the fourth round. By the same token, the seeding committee will be the toast of those privileged yesterday to witness what would have made a pretty good final.

Sharapova, still groping her way back from shoulder surgery, served notice that she will soon be restored to the denouements of Grand Slams, rather than a role as best supporting actress. As for Williams – well, her 7-6, 6-4 success was just frightening.

She catapulted five aces in her first seven service points and broke Sharapova's serve at only the second attempt. But the Russian responded magnificently, prising open a break point in the very next game – and squeezing through by dint of something that sooner resembled an act of self-defence than a return. Williams, perhaps taken aback, prodded into the net.

From that moment every slight fissure of opportunity had to be treated as an abyss. Every second serve thickened the hot air with tension. Williams was putting such a ruthless emphasis on power that Sharapova's notorious screams for once seemed perfectly proportionate.

In turn, Sharapova was harnessing that familiar, demure address – arching with all the venom of a swan asking another swan to pass the salt – to increasingly violent effect. It all made for heavy, staccato exchanges, and such rallies might have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The logical consummation was a tiebreaker, and it duly stretched 20 points. Williams opened with a 122 mph howitzer; Sharapova responded with an ace of her own, but then double-faulted and missed consecutive opportunities to finish off the next point at the net. It is a measure of the renewal in her game that she clawed back to three set points; and of its lingering frailties, that she ended up yielding Williams the chance she would take by again double-faulting.

Perhaps the ordeal was taking its toll, for she suddenly gift-wrapped a service break for Williams in the third game of the second set, and her opponent never let her back in thereafter. But it would be uncharitable to talk of unforced errors. Against Williams in this kind of form, there is no such thing as an "unforced" error. And Sharapova had met the No 1 seed on mutually agreed terms, positive to the last in both tactics and demeanour.

"I had a few looks at her serve," she said. "But even when you have a good look and the ball's coming at you in the 120s, it's tough to do much with it. I gave her a good run for her money. I'm in a much better spot than last year."

Williams was avenging Sharapova's breakthrough success in the 2004 final, and now remains on course for a third consecutive showdown with her sister, Venus, who likewise worked over a tough, confident opponent in Jarmila Groth. But Venus, too, proved able to summon more for the big points in winning through 6-4, 7-6.

Asked about the assets she brings to grass, she gave an instructive answer. "On this surface, you can't pretend," she said. "You have to really be a good player. You have to be able to play the tough points. You can't just keep the balls in play and maybe outlast your opponent. [You] try to make something happen."

It is to the credit of the women's game – routinely maligned as it is – that yesterday it was not just the Williams sisters who did that, but both their opponents as well.

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