Red-hot Sharapova cruises into semis

CRUNCH TIME::Maria Sharapova faces China’s Li Na in the semi-finals, while David Ferrer survived a scare to set up a meeting with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic

AP, MELBOURNE, Australia

Wed, Jan 23, 2013 - Page 20

Maria Sharapova has lost only nine games in five matches on the way to the semi-finals at the Australian Open. Always the perfectionist, she sees room for improvement.

Sharapova beat fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova 6-2, 6-2 yesterday and was asked afterwards if she had lost focus in only a few games this tournament.

“No, I’d probably say more, but that’s probably because I’m critical,” Sharapova said.

If that is the case, she is a pretty tough taskmaster.

After opening with a pair of 6-0, 6-0 wins, Sharapova beat seven-time major winner Venus Williams 6-1, 6-3 in the third round and Belgian Kristen Flipkens 6-0, 6-1 in the fourth.

Nobody has conceded fewer games on the way to the semi-finals at the Australian Open and her impressive streak comes after having played in no warm-up tournaments due to a right-collarbone injury.

However, after having advanced to the final in Melbourne last year, losing to Victoria Azarenka in lopsided fashion, Sharapova is taking nothing for granted.

“To be honest, those are not the stats you want to be known for,” Sharapova said, adding that she was more concerned about adding a fifth Grand Slam title and had spent plenty of time on the practice court.

Sharapova’s semi-final opponent is Li Na, who beat Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5, 6-3 in the first of yesterday’s quarter-finals, breaking the Polish player’s 13-match winning streak to start the season.

Novak Djokovic spent half the time on Rod Laver Arena last night than he did in his previous round, beating Tomas Berdych 6-1, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 to advance to a semi-final against David Ferrer.

Djokovic needed five sets and 5 hours, 2 minutes to beat Stanislas Wawrinka in a fourth-round match on Sunday, but showed little rustiness from that late finish to complete the win over Berdych — albeit on his fourth match point — in 2 hours, 31 minutes.

It was two-time defending champion Djokovic’s 19th consecutive win at Melbourne Park.

“It was a great performance,” Djokovic said. “I was hoping to have a shorter match.”

Fourth seed Ferrer survived once in the third set and twice in the fourth when 10th seed Nicolas Almagro was serving for the match, holding firm to finally advance to his fourth semi-final in six Grand Slam events with a 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 win.

It was the second straight year that Makarova has lost to Sharapova after knocking out a seeded player in the third round. Last year, she beat Serena Williams in the fourth round. At the weekend, it was No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber.

Sixth-seeded Li did not overly tax herself, either, in the quarter-finals.

The 30-year-old advanced to her third semi-final in four years at Melbourne Park.

“She’s a tough player. I was feeling today against a wall,” said Li, who lost the 2011 Australian Open final to Kim Clijsters only months before her Grand Slam breakthrough at the French Open.

The quarter-finals in the other half of the women’s draw are due to be held today, with US teenager Sloane Stephens taking on Serena Williams, who is aiming for a third consecutive major title, and defending champion Victoria Azarenka playing two-time major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova.

The first man through to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park had a difficult time.

“It was [a] miracle I won this match, I think,” Ferrer said. “I tried to fight every point, that’s my game. I always fight.”

Almagro dominated the first two sets and was serving for the match in the third when Ferrer bounced back, breaking in the crucial 10th game and then breaking his Davis Cup teammate again.

The fourth set featured eight service breaks until Ferrer finally took control in a tiebreaker to force a fifth set.

Almagro has played 33 consecutive majors, but never reached a semi-final. It was his first Grand Slam quarter-final on any surface other than clay — he has reached three quarter-finals at the French Open — and he really took the match to Ferrer, the leading Spaniard in the tournament in the absence of 11-time major winner Rafael Nadal.

Almagro hurt his left leg late in the fourth set and needed a medical timeout before the fifth. After holding serve in a long game to open the fifth set, he quickly wilted after the first break.

On the last point, he hit a service return back into play and had already started strolling to the net as Ferrer prepared to hit the winner.

As he left the court, he gave his compatriot a friendly pat on the back as Ferrer packed his bag on the courtside chairs, then left Rod Laver Arena.

“In the important moments, I played more consistent in my game,” Ferrer said. “Of course, in the next round, the semi-finals, I need to play my best tennis, better than today.”

Today, the other side of the men’s singles draw has second seed Roger Federer playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 3 Andy Murray taking on Jeremy Chardy of France.