Australian Open: Serena sets up Sharapova showdown
World number one and defending champion Serena Williams smacked down Margarita Gasparyan to sweep into an Australian Open quarter-final against Maria Sharapova on Sunday.
The American top seed and 21-time Grand Slam winner wasted little energy in swatting aside the unseeded Russian 6-2, 6-1 in 55 minutes at Rod Laver Arena to set up the mouth-watering clash with her long-time rival.
Williams has won every game against Sharapova since 2004, including last year's final at Melbourne Park.
Five-time Grand Slam winner Sharapova came through an epic 7-5, 7-5 battle against 12th seed Belinda Bencic immediately before Williams came on court.
Williams, who rarely looks at the draw during a tournament, claimed she didn't know who she was facing next.
"I had no idea," she said, when told Sharapova was up next by a courtside interviewer. "I really have nothing to lose. We're both just doing the best we can. It'll be fun."
The 34-year-old had schooled another Russian, Daria Kasatkina, in the earlier round, crushing her in just 44 minutes, and now it was the 58th-ranked Gasparyan's turn.
It was a sluggish start by Williams, who was broken in the first game by the 21-year-old on her tournament debut, to gasps of shock from the crowd.
But it was a minor blip as the top seed found her range, breaking straight back as the Russian found herself on the receiving end of Williams' powerful forehand.
Williams, with the great Margaret Court in the stadium watching, held serve and broke again for a 3-1 lead.
It wasn't vintage Serena but even operating at 50 percent she was too good for Gasparyan and a rout was on the cards.
Gasparyan, who won her first WTA title last year, at Baku, gamely hung on and held serve to keep the score respectable.
But the six-time Melbourne Park winner, gunning to equal Steffi Graf's Open-era record of 22 Grand Slam titles, was in full control, doing the necessary to take the set easily in 30 minutes.
She dropped just five games in her previous two matches and surrendered only one more against Gasparyan, breaking her on the fourth and sixth games with her phenomenal serve keeping her in command.
She wrapped it up with service winner down the line, clenching her fist in victory.
"I kinda knew she liked to go for a lot, to be aggressive, so I knew I had to play strong," she said of Gasparyan, who she beat at Wimbledon last year.
Williams won three majors - the Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon - in 2015 which took her to within one of Graf's long-time record of 22. Court holds the all-time Grand Slam record of 24.
The top seed claimed her first Australian Open title in 2003, beating sister Venus in the final, and reached her sixth last year when she toppled Sharapova.
World number five Maria Sharapova ground her way into an eighth Australian Open quarter-final Sunday, downing highly-rated Swiss teen Belinda Bencic after a titanic struggle.
The Russian five-time Grand Slam champion needed two hours, five minutes to get past the 12th seed 7-5, 7-5 on Rod Laver Arena and set up a potential last-eight clash with arch-rival Serena Williams.
"These are the players that will ultimately take our spot," she said of the talented Bencic. "But not just yet."
"I was really focused today," she added. "It's always great to play against the players coming up for the first time."
Bencic, the WTA's highest ranked teenager, has gone from rising star to the real deal over the past year, having already claimed 10 top-10 wins in her career.
Coached by Melanie Molitor, mother of Martina Hingis, she won tournaments in Eastbourne and Toronto in a breakout 2015 and was a major hurdle for the Russian.
But Sharapova - the last teen to win a Grand Slam title, aged 19 at the 2006 US Open - has been in good touch at Melbourne Park, where she won in 2008, and ultimately her big-match experience proved decisive.
She easily held for 1-0 then applied pressure to the Bencic serve with some pinpoint groundstrokes.
The teenager held on to keep it at level-pegging but the Russian kept pressing and had two break points in the fourth game, with the Swiss keeping her cool to stay in the set.
Sharapova is well known for her solid backhand, but it was the forehand she has been relying on in Melbourne so far, and she put it to good effect again, drilling winners.
But her serve can run hot and cold and a double fault gave Bencic her first break point, and a backhand into the net gifted the young gun a 4-3 lead.
Sharapova wasted no time in breaking straight back but her hit-and-miss serve again let her down and Bencic reclaimed the advantage with a sizzling backhand down the line.
Neither player could hold serve and the Russian was soon back at 4-4 on her third break point of the game when Bencic snatched a backhand wide.
Sharapova finally held serve and, shouting "C'mon!", carved out two set points in the 10th game - but failed to convert either.
It was a huge battle with little between them. The Russian hung on to take a 6-5 lead and finally won the set after 64 minutes when Bencic scooped a backhand wide.
The first game of the second set lasted 11 minutes, as the struggle for dominance continued.
It went with serve till 2-2 as they battled to gain the upper hand. Bencic had her first break point but a clinical Sharapova stayed in control and had a break point herself on the Swiss star's next serve only to be denied.
Neither could find an opening until the 12th game when Sharapova screamed in joy after winning a challenge on a deep baseline shot that handed her victory on her second match point.
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