Sharapova's seamless path to semifinals a distinct advantage

Updated: January 23, 2008

Lopsided Semi?

One semifinalist is a two-time Grand Slam champion, a predator on the court, a player who has vanquished the field thus far at the Australian Open. The other narrowly escaped the first round, and by her own admission, needs to change the oil and her wheels.

Despite a favorable seeding, No. 3 Jelena Jankovic enters her semifinal showdown versus Maria Sharapova an undisputable underdog. Jankovic, who has spent appreciable amounts of time on court because of two three-set matches, arrives at her next encounter noticeably fatigued.

The Serb's heart-stopping moments along the way to the final four include a rigorous climb that began in the first round versus 17-year-old prodigy Tamira Paszek. Jankovic fended off three match points before prevailing 12-10 in the deciding set.

Accruing such long hours has taken its toll on Jankovic. Her myriad aches and pains have come to fruition, but credits her mental and physical fortitude as her saving grace. "I'm really proud of myself, how I'm doing and how I'm surviving all these matches and going through all these times," Jankovic said in her news conference following her quarterfinal win over Serena Williams. "I'm just having a lot of fun. But I'm really just enjoying it, and I'm just trying to play my game and just going for the win."

Jankovic

Jankovic's struggles are a direct result of negligent play, racking up more unforced errors than winners in every match except one. Her aggregate stats read like this: 161 unforced errors, 119 winners and she has been broken 24 times through five matches. But, she's a survivor.

"I didn't know my body was going to hold up," Jankovic said. "But my goal was to somehow get into the second week, which I did. And then when you get all these matches under your belt, anything can happen in that time."

While Jankovic's play has been marred by inconsistency, Sharapova has relinquished just nine games in her past three matches. Her rout over top-seeded Justine Henin was a declarative statement, considering the Belgian entered the highly anticipated confrontation on the strength of a 32-match winning streak.

From the start, Sharapova controlled the match with great aplomb, and if that is a prelude to her semifinal encounter with Jankovic, it could turn out to be a long day for the Serb.

"I think it was one of the most consistent matches where I did all the things I wanted to do, and I did them correctly from the beginning to the end," Sharapova told reporters after that match. "I felt like I did many things right, and I just played the way I can play."

But no one identifies how quickly fortunes can change more than Sharapova.

She was the victim of a memorable lopsided Australian final against Serena Williams a year ago. En route to the title match, the Russian mauled her first six opponents before a 6-1, 6-2 shellacking to Williams -- the most lopsided final in 13 years at Melbourne Park.

That match turned out to be an ominous sign for Sharapova. She never fully recovered; her clay-court season in particular was pretty much for naught after a lingering shoulder injury limited her to two tournaments on dirt. If not for a remarkable showing at the Tour Championships, in which she reached the final, Sharapova may have entered 2008 with far less belief.

Finally healthy, and after slight refinements to her serve, Sharapova is resolute in her quest to conquer this title. Despite five one-sided wins, she is painfully aware titles of this magnitude don't come freely.

And that's a credit to her maturation. No longer is Sharapova the 17-year-old greenhorn standing on Centre Court at Wimbledon a befuddled champion. She is fully engulfed in her mission to avoid missed opportunity.

"The tournament is not over," Sharapova said. "Even though I beat Justine, it's definitely not over. I still have a lot of business to take care of. … Previous matches don't count. This is a new encounter, a new match."

While Jankovic's has struggled to stay afloat during this difficult and wearisome march at the first Grand Slam of the year, the tennis court has been Sharapova's oasis.

And when the dust settles, Sharapova may just find herself one win away from salvaging last season's nightmare.

Matt Wilansky is the tennis editor for ESPN.com


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Here We Go Again

Sharapova

It always seems to be something with Maria Sharapova's father, Yuri, whose sign language to his daughter at the 2006 U.S. Open final caused a ruckus. On Wednesday, the Australian television network broadcasting this tournament reported that the WTA was "investigating" Yuri Sharapova because of a throat-slitting gesture he made courtside after her dominating win over world No. 1 Justine Henin in the quarterfinals Tuesday night.

WTA spokeswoman Amy Binder said there was no investigation and that the story arose out of a misunderstanding when the tour asked Channel 7 for tape of the incident. Maria Sharapova was caught off-guard when reporters asked her about it after her win -- she was blowing kisses to the crowd and not looking at her father at the time. WTA CEO Larry Scott then issued a statement saying he was satisfied the incident stemmed from an "inside joke."

Apparently, it's all about the camouflage hoodie Yuri Sharapova has sported at several of his daughter's matches. During a news conference last week, Maria Sharapova joked that it made him look like an "assassin."

--Bonnie D. Ford

Clark Kent Syndrome

Blake

James Blake, on whether Roger Federer has an intimidating presence off the court:

"No. And I think that's something that's very unique about him, is that it comes from his play. A lot of the veterans or retired players are kind of shocked that he is as nice as he is. Honestly, I saw him at dinner last night. We said, 'Hi, how's it going?' The waitress came over and said, 'Do we need to move you guys apart?' 'No, we don't care. We can be friendly.'

"So he doesn't try to, you know, make himself somewhat unknown or mysterious to the rest of us, what he's doing. He's genuinely a friendly guy. … He seems like one of the guys in the locker room. Then you go out there, he beats the crap out of you, you come back in the locker room and he's one of the guys.

"I mean, it's not intimidation by him being extremely huge, muscular, talking down to anybody, being condescending, having any sort of a huge entourage keeping him isolated. He's just that good."

--Bonnie D. Ford

Time For A Rest

Henin

At the ripe old age of 25, Henin feels it's time to give her "old" knee a rest.

The top-ranked Henin complained of a sore knee after tumbling out of the Australian Open with a 6-4, 6-0 quarterfinals loss to the fifth-seeded Sharapova.

"I was really concerned about my knee for a few days," the Belgian said. "So I was a bit anxious, because I knew I wasn't really 100 percent. Even if it's not an excuse about what happened on the court, because she was much better than me."

Now that she's heading home, Henin said she'll have a chance to put her feet up.

"It's just my knee is getting old, and, yeah, probably have to rest a little bit now," she said.

Henin missed the Australian Open last year and returned to the tour with a stunning 63-4 record in '07, including titles at the French and U.S. opens.

--AP

Inbox

Bonnie D. Ford is on the grounds at the Australian Open for the two-week event. She'll have firsthand knowledge of everything that's transpiring Down Under. Send your questions to Bonnie here.