Mighty Maria: Sharapova Dominates Venus to Reach Second Week

Sharapova shone under the Rod Laver light as she defeated a fellow major champion.

The most anticipated match of the first week in the women’s draw, the collision between Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams turned into a proclamation of the former’s brilliance rather than the suspenseful epic for which many had hoped.  Superior in every area to the seven-time major champion, the career Grand Slam holder notched a 6-1 6-3 victory that echoed her dazzling efforts from the previous two rounds against a much more dangerous foe.

Establishing the staccato tone of the rallies from the outset, both women swung for early winners rather than constructing points.  Each of them struggled on serve initially, Venus starting the match with a double fault and Sharapova missing a series of first serves.  With a barrage of forehands that kept her opponent off balance, the second seed started the match by breaking serve.  Not subdued a whit, the American nearly broke back directly by cracking explosive returns on the Russian’s second serves.  Three straight forehand errors from Venus allowed Sharapova to escape the game, however, and she collected her 27th consecutive game of the tournament when her own sterling returns subjected her opponent to pressure that contributed to a double fault.

Soon staring at a 0-4 deficit, the seven-time major champion rallied her spirits for a solid service hold that halted a streak of 28 straight games by Sharapova to start the season, a record in tennis history.  A service winner toward the Russian’s forehand, a tactic that had worked well for her earlier, followed steadier groundstrokes.  But that ray of hope marked the last flicker of positive news for Venus in the first set, which Sharapova captured soon thereafter with relentlessly aggressive tennis despite persistent struggles with locating her first serve.

The American’s fortunes only could improve in the second set, it seemed, and she started reasonably well by winning two points on her opponent’s serve.  From there, though, a hold preceded a love break and a love hold to position Sharapova at 6-1, 3-0.  Her back to the wall, Venus fell behind triple break point in what represented essentially triple match point.  The veteran found the range on her groundstrokes when she most needed them, in addition to an impressive first serve that saved the last break point.  Suddenly errant with her own groundstrokes, Sharapova lost the next five points to throw Venus a lifeline.  Her control continued to waver during the ensuing service game, which started with two netted groundstrokes on the first three points.  Still searching for her own rhythm, Venus donated four unforced errors to assist her opponent in retaining the 4-1 lead.

The last point in that fifth game unfolded in scintillating style with an escalation of percussive groundstrokes, though, the type of point that most fans anticipated from the match.  Running desperately to track down Sharapova’s baseline bombs in her next service game, Venus produced the scrambling defense that had fueled much of her success over the last decade.  The second seed responded by delivering a mighty statement of her own, crushing a first-serve return for a clean winner and then pounding a backhand winner down the line.

Down double break point again, Venus benefited from an unforced error on Sharapova’s return and stayed in a rally long enough to elicit an overeager groundstroke.  The shot-making from the Russian struck back with a second-serve return winner that created a third break point, but another unforced error let it vanish.  In control of most rallies, Sharapova nevertheless looked a little edgy as she could not quite deliver the terminal blow.  Fortunately for her, Venus netted consecutive forehands to end the multiple-deuce game and hand her opponent two chances to serve for the match, celebrated with a fistpump and fierce roar from across the net.

That additional breathing room proved vital for Sharapova, who failed to find her first serve or her focus in the ensuing game.  With some crisp returning, Venus reached triple break point before a series of expertly placed serves leveled the game at deuce.  Sharapova compensated for a sluggish error on the next point with a breathtaking get, but Venus eventually converted her fifth opportunity with the poise of a champion who refuses to yield.  Dropping serve for the first time in the tournament, she showed a tremor of vulnerability.

Back within range, Venus still needed to hold.  She won an entertaining cat-and-mouse point at the net early in the next game, and she answered a fine Sharapova drop shot with a tidy slice of her own that set up a smash.  Able to hold without facing a break point for just the second time in the match, the veteran began to look more confident in general.  Perhaps thinking ahead to the next game, Sharapova dumped a second-serve return in the net to extend the match.

A rocketed forehand winner and a fine first serve quickly moved her to 30-0 before an ill-conceived challenge and a wild backhand evened the game.  With a long forehand return, Venus set up a match point.  Sharapova would not need another.

Crunching an ace down the center service line, the world #2 completed an authoritative 6-1 6-3 rout that vaulted her into the second week with an intimidating statement.  Sharapova revealed just how much this victory over a Williams sister meant to her with a pulsating series of fist pumps and primal screams before striding to the net.  Once there, she shook hands with her fellow legend courteously, shifting from ferocious to gracious in an instant.

Due to face Kirsten Flipkens in the fourth round, Sharapova towers above her section of the draw and will have soared even further in belief with this victory over a champion of such quality.  This victory recalled her dominant performance against Lindsay Davenport in the first week of her 2008 title surge here.  For Venus, meanwhile, the scoreline did not reflect her valiant effort late in the second set, when she came within two points of erasing a substantial deficit and improbably clawing back into the match.  Once she puts this evening into perspective, she should feel proud of the way that she competed even if not satisfied with the result.

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