Sharapova could serve up a surprise against Serena
With her service much improved, Sharapova could buck form guide
Another day of reckoning looms for Maria Sharapova when she takes on long-time nemesis Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarter-finals, but the Russian can at least head into the match with her serve running hot.
Runner-up to Williams last year, Sharapova booked a rematch against the American with a hard-fought 7-5, 7-5 win over Swiss young gun Belinda Bencic in the early match on Rod Laver Arena yesterday.
Hampered by a number of surgeries on her right shoulder since 2009, Sharapova's serve has rarely proved the difference in tight matches, but her 21 aces were vital in fending off 12th seed Bencic, touted as a future Grand Slam winner.
The richly talented 18-year-old had a number of chances to break Sharapova in the second set, but the five-time Grand Slam champion's serve repeatedly sprung her from jail.
The 28-year-old leads the tournament with 52 aces, some distance from Williams' 25, although the American has had to use her serving arm less to reach the quarter-finals.
"I feel like that's something I have been working on a lot since I had shoulder surgery," Sharapova said, after her win.
"I have gone through many different motions to try to find my groove again and something that would hold up over many matches.
"That was something that was really difficult to find a rhythm and a balance between keeping the shoulder, not going back so much, because I'm quite loose, to a motion that kind of gave me the chance to play many matches and feel like I was still not able not to be tired after three, four tough matches.
"So, yeah, I have made a little bit of a change last year in the stance, but everyone always tries to improve things here and there. It's not that big of a deal."
Williams, the world No. 1, comfortably accounted for Russian Margarita Gasparyan 6-2, 6-1 later.
The victory for the 34-year-old, who is seeking a seventh Australian Open title and 22nd Grand Slam trophy, could not have been in sharper contrast to that of Sharapova, who sealed her place in the eagerly anticipated quarter-final in two hours and five minutes.
Williams swept aside Sharapova's Russian compatriot in 55 minutes.
Williams has spent a total of just 2hr 39min on court since beating Italy's Camila Giorgi in the first round and sounded a coded warning to Sharapova ahead of their clash.
"I just feel like I'm really confident in my game right now, not against her or against any other opponent," Williams said.
"I feel if I can just continue to play well, then it could be good."
Williams has not lost to Sharapova since 2004, a run of 17 successive victories, and holds an 18-2 career record overall against the Russian.
"The person who's winning could definitely feel the pressure because there is a lot of expectations," Williams said.
"The person who is losing (could think) 'well, I have lost X amount in a row; I don't have anything to lose'.
"But, in this situation, I don't have anything to lose because I'm just here.
"Every tournament for me is just a bonus at this point in my career."
After losing to Williams 6-3, 7-6 (7/5) in the final last year, Sharapova said she felt close to breaking the biggest hoodoo in women's tennis, but a 6-2, 6-4 defeat in the semi-finals of Wimbledon showed the chasm was as wide as ever.
"It's not like I think about what I can do worse," said Sharapova, when asked what she could do to snap the streak.
"You're always trying to improve. It's only going to be tougher, especially against Serena." - Reuters.
BY THE NUMBERS
Serena Williams has won the last 17 matches between the two players.
Maria Sharapova has not managed to win a set in their last six meetings.