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Serena plays mind games with Maria

- World No. 1 to meet Russian in the semi-final
Serena Williams in Brisbane, on Thursday

Brisbane: Maria Sharapova rallied to beat Kaia Kanepi, on Thursday, and will meet Serena Williams in the Brisbane International semi-final knowing she must drastically improve to end her run of 13 straight defeats against the world No. 1.

Serena comfortably beat Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova 6-3, 6-3 in 61 minutes, winning the first set without losing a point on serve — a feat she had not achieved since she was a junior.

Prior to this match, Sharapova was involved in an error-strewn battle as she came from a set down to defeat Estonia’s Kanepi 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in two hours.

In contrast to Serena’s start, which she credited to the extra attention paid to her serve during the off-season, Sharapova’s match began with four straight breaks of serve and she went on to total 17 unforced errors in the first set.

Had 2012 champion Kanepi been in better form herself — the match produced 66 clangers in total — the Sharapova-Serena semi-final match-up the tournament organisers had been hoping for would have been scuppered.

The Russian did improve as the match went on and in the third set her service accuracy improved to 84 per cent, nearly double her efforts in the first two sets, but she knows her game needs plenty more improvement.

“You’re going up against a great champion that’s playing great tennis at the moment,” Sharapova said.

“You have to raise the level of your game in order to beat her. I think the intensity level of our matches is always high. I think she goes up and wants to play the best tennis against me. That’s certainly no secret because she shows that on the court.”

Although the contests between the two have been one-sided, Sharapova herself says she needs “to win a few times in order to call it rivalry”, the pair’s frosty off-court relations ensured the clash is the biggest in the women’s game.

When asked about her relationship with Serena following her victory over Kanepi, the Russian replied: “I have said everything I had to say about it.”

The American, who has been at pains to discuss her more relaxed approach to tennis and life during the tournament, was slightly more forthcoming.

“I had a great talk with her,” Serena said. “I don’t have anything against her or anything.”

Despite these protestations their body language is certain to be heavily scrutinised when they step onto Pat Rafter Arena on Friday.

Meanwhile, perhaps unsurprisingly, Serena has a clear memory of the moment her on-court rivalry with Sharapova swung in her favour, leading to one-way domination for the last eight years.

After losing to Serena in their first meeting in Miami in 2004, the Russian went on win finals against the American at Wimbledon, claiming her first Grand Slam title, and in the Tour Championships of that year.

Then, in an epic 2005 Australian Open semi-finals clash, Sharapova had three match points.

“I remember a forehand inside out,” Serena said. “I was down match point and I hit this winner and I didn't even blink. I hit the a winner and walked right to the other side and was ready for the next return as if it was just a 30-15 point.”

Serena went on to win the match 2-6, 7-5, 8-6 and since then has improved their head-to-head record to 14-2 in her favour.

These wins have included the finals of the 2007 Australian Open, 2012 Olympics and the last time they met at Roland Garros seven month ago.

Sharapova claimed to have no memory of the match at Rod Laver Arena eight years ago.

“2005? Oh, my God, I can’t go back that far,” Sharapova said. “I don’t have too much time to look back at ’04. I have a lot of things going on in my life.

“Some of the matches were a bit closer than others. When you go out on the court in a new time, you can’t really rely on everything that happened in the past. You’ve got to start from scratch from the first point.

“Of course I know I’ve tried and I didn’t succeed in the last many times that I've played her, but I'm setting up an opportunity to go out there and try to change that, and I'm going to try to do that.” (Reuters)