Venus Williams no match for Maria Sharapova

MELBOURNE, Australia -- There's almost nothing a tennis crowd loves more than continuity, encounters between stars whose every mannerism is familiar, long unbroken storylines that gain more depth with every handshake at the net.

That was the kind of match Venus Williams versus Maria Sharapova presented on the Australian Open marquee -- an orbit-crossing of two comets, and a celestial event that has occurred surprisingly seldom given their stature and longevity. They have 11 Grand Slam titles between them, but had met only seven times before, and only twice previously in a major -- both times on the grass at Wimbledon, both won by Williams.

Beneath the sapphire-blue surface they warmed up on was the knowledge that given their respective trajectories, the third-round match probably wouldn't generate the intensity the names promised. Sharapova entered the match on a 24-game win streak, while Williams is still oscillating day to day, at the mercy of an autoimmune illness -- Sjogren's syndrome -- that makes her body a fickle vessel.

But the fans in Rod Laver Arena could still hope, and their desire for a close, competitive match was palpable. They were respectfully restrained as the second-seeded Russian bolted out to a 4-0 lead before Williams was able to keep her grip in a service game and end Sharapova's shutout string.

Sharapova finished off that set with cold economy. However, Williams has enormous pride, and seemed imbued with new energy after she broke Sharapova for the first time in the tournament to hang in at 2-5 in the second set. The crowd roused itself. It was hard not to read too much into their cheering -- how to urge on a struggling champion without sounding too charitable? Williams hit more winners, came to net a few times and held serve, but Sharapova's groundstrokes were too deep and accurate, and forced too many errors.

After securing the 6-1, 6-3 victory, Sharapova screamed and clenched her fists emphatically.

"I was just really pumped. Why shouldn't I be?" said the 25-year-old, whose form is stirring memories of her march to the 2008 title here.

She admitted, in defiance of the usual player's self-blindfolding, that she'd been looking forward to this juncture in the draw.

"I was a really determined player out there because I knew the tennis that she's capable of producing and playing,'' said Sharapova, who will face Belgium's 43rd-ranked Kirsten Flipkens in the fourth round. "Despite what she's ranked or seeded, it doesn't matter when you go out on the court. She's been there.''

Any danger of backsliding after riding that kind of adrenaline before the first week is out? Former pro Mary Joe Fernandez, who called the match for ESPN, doesn't think so.

"If it were anybody else, I would say yes,'' Fernandez said. "But I don't think it's in her nature to have letdowns. I think she'll continue to have this tunnel vision, this focus.

"She's seeing the ball well, she's moving well, she's playing within herself, she's not overplaying. I think it's all coming together for her to have a really good run.''

Williams, who remains in the doubles draw with sister Serena, was polite but extremely succinct in her post-match remarks. Surely she must be as exhausted by the repetitive questions about whether she can ever be her old self as she is by the illness itself.

"Honestly, every day that I practice is a day that I'm motivated to be better,'' she said. "Regardless of my results I want to be better, the best, the best that I can bring.''

Fernandez, who has become better acquainted with Williams as the U.S. Fed Cup captain, said she didn't consider the outcome too shocking.

"With Venus, it was a combination of not being able to keep up with Maria early, and being a little flat off the forehand. She made a lot of errors, was not as confident from that side,'' Fernandez said. "Having said that, tough draw; I think had it been anybody outside the top three seeds, she would have been in the match and perhaps get the upset. I don't think she's going away; I think we're going to see her many more times -- I think she's going to be dangerous. It was a tough matchup, and she wasn't at her best.''

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