Sharapova reaches first Aussie Open semifinal

Updated: January 25, 2005, 1:42 PM ET
Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Serena Williams shrugged off the searing heat and beat second-ranked Amelie Mauresmo 6-2, 6-2 Tuesday to set up a semifinal showdown against Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. Wed.).

Williams, who won the championship in 2003 but couldn't defend the title last year because of a knee injury, slammed 23 winners and needed just 71 minutes to beat Mauresmo.

"I feel great," she said. "I played really well -- I was just really focused."

Williams converted breakpoint chances twice in each set against Mauresmo, who had 27 unforced errors and was hampered by a thigh injury.

Williams didn't win a major title in 2004, lost the Wimbledon final -- as the two-time defending champion -- to Sharapova.

Russians have won the last three Grand Slam titles, and two of those champions met Tuesday in a quarterfinal at Melbourne Park.

Sharapova overcame U.S. Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, with both players struggling in the heat.

Kuznetsova failed to hold any of her last eight service games and gave Sharapova, 17, a match point with a double-fault.

Sharapova, whose screeching increased with every shot, whipped a running forehand crosscourt winner to close out the match in 2 hours, 17 minutes. She dropped her racket and flung both arms in the air.

"I need a wheelchair right now," said Sharapova, on the verge of exhaustion. "Just mentally, I tried to tough it out."

The temperature at the start of the match was 87 degrees, and rose to 91 degrees, but a warm, dry wind made it feel hotter on center court.

Serena raced through her quarterfinal and said heat wasn't a big factor. While her match was in progress on center court, matches on outside courts were suspended under the tournament's extreme heat policy.

Williams' toughest time came after she beat Mauresmo. She bristled when asked whether her and sister Venus' skills -- they have combined for 10 Grand Slam singles titles -- are declining, and whether she needs to win this tournament to prove they aren't.

"I'm tired of not saying anything, but that's not fair," Williams snapped. "We've been practicing really hard. We've had some serious injuries."

Her voice catching, she also spoke about the shooting death of half-sister Yetunde Price in September 2003.

"We have a very, very, very, very, very close family," Williams said. "To be in some situation that we've been placed in the past little over a year, it's not easy to come out and just perform at your best when you realize there are so many things that are so important.

"We're not declining. I don't have to win this tournament to prove anything. I know that I'm one of the best players out here."

She certainly looked to be against Mauresmo, who said she was only at 50 percent after tweaking the thigh that she wrapped for every match to try to avoid a recurrence of a muscle strain.

Mauresmo, one of the fittest players on the women's tour, has been plagued by injuries and withdrew from the Australian Open last year before her quarterfinal match with a back muscle strain.

Organizers won't allow matches to start after the temperature reaches 95 degrees, and other factors, including humidity and the temperature on court, reach set limits.

Williams said she was looking forward to a rematch with Sharapova, who has won their last two matches.

"I have to just focus on my next match," she said. "We played a couple of times. She's been doing great."

Williams vowed to be more relaxed this time against Sharapova.

In the first match, Sharapova and Kuznetsova took a 10-minute break between the second and third sets. During breaks between games, they put ice packs and wet towels on their necks.

Each constantly walked into the small patches of shade on the edges of Rod Laver Arena.

"It was so hot -- on the court it's very, very hot," said Sharapova. "I just try to concentrate on what I have to do ... block it out. But it was one of the toughest [matches] of my life."

Kuznetsova finished with 53 unforced errors and got less than half of her first serves into play, giving Sharapova plenty of chances to pounce on second serves.

"It was just terrible," Kuznetsova said. "I was very focused and I play very well first set. And after something happened, so I just stopped. I mean, like my body was there, but my mind wasn't there at all. It was just, I don't know, ball boy playing out there."

Sharapova seemed to be struggling the most, leaning on her racket and hanging her head, then coming out to try to convert the heat into steam in her shots. Kuznetsova often found herself waiting to serve while Sharapova slowly made her way to return.

People in the crowd used fans, towels and caps to keep the sun at bay.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press