SERENA Williams sounded a warning to her teenage nemesis Maria Sharapova as the two rivals emerged from the Melbourne Park furnace to reach the Australian Open semi-finals yesterday.
Williams has a losing 2-1 record against 17-year-old Sharapova, with painful defeats coming last season in the Wimbledon final and the WTA Tour Championships in Los Angeles.
Now Williams and Sharapova will meet again in the last four tomorrow after winning quarter-finals played in fierce heat. And with more hot weather forecast, the temperatures could well tip the scales in Williams' favour.
Unquestionably, it was the former world number who looked more comfortable as the mercury rose on the Rod Laver Arena yesterday, demolishing French second seed Amelie Mauresmo 6-2, 6-2 in just over an hour.
Siberia-born seed Sharapova found the going much harder before summoning the willpower to prevail 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 against compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Sharapova's match was halted for 10 minutes after the second set under the tournament's extreme heat rule, a decision which saw both Russians' play improve in the decisive set.
But Sharapova admitted afterwards she had been struggling.
“I need a wheelchair right now,” she said after completing an energy-sapping victory in 2hr 17min.
“I was just trying to tell myself mentally just to get through it,” she said, adding that gruelling winter conditioning work had paid off.
“I kept thinking back in my off-season, you know, how hard it was when I was training physically, and I thought I couldn't go any more, but I knew that I had some more even though my body thought I didn't.
“I remember those moments, and I just kept fighting, just trying to take as much time as I can and fight.
Kuznetsova admitted the temperatures had made conditions hard but she put the defeat down to an inexplicable collapse that saw her game fall to pieces in the second and third sets.
“I was very focused and I played very well first set,” Kuznetsova said.
“And after that something happened, so I just stopped. I mean, I just stopped playing. My body was there, but my mind wasn't there at all.
“I can't blame the heat as an excuse. It's a lie. I think I was coping with it better than Maria, I felt okay.”
But while Sharapova and Kuznetsova looked drained after their tie, seventh-seed Williams – the 2003 champion – appeared fresher than ever after romping past Mauresmo in 1hr 11min.
“I feel great,” said Williams, used to playing and training in the heat and humidity of Florida. “I played a really solid match. I'm used to making about 40 errors but today I made a lot less.
“It was extremely hot out there. Was that the hottest I've been? Maybe. It was definitely one of the hottest,” added Williams.
“To me it doesn't matter. If they'd closed the roof I would have been okay, but if they kept it open I was fine too.”
Afterwards, Williams rounded on pundits who had questioned whether her and sister Venus were in decline after a barren 2004 where both failed to win a Grand Slam for the first time since 1998.
The 23-year-old said that injuries and trauma caused by the 2003 murder of their sister Yetunde Price were often overlooked by those who had written them off.
“I don't appreciate that language, to be honest with you,” Williams replied when it was remarked that prevailing talk had been of a decline in fortunes.
“I'm tired of not saying anything, but that's not fair. We've been practising really hard. We've had some serious injuries,” she said.
Mauresmo was disconsolate after seeing another Grand Slam campaign end in defeat.
The French world number two said a sore adductor muscle had reduced her to a hobbling passenger, barely able to move around the court.
Mauresmo, who was forced to withdraw from last year's Australian Open with a back strain just before the quarter-finals, said she had been afraid of injuring herself more seriously as a result.
“Tennis is already tough when you're 100 percent, when you're 50 percent, when you're not moving so well on both sides, it's getting tougher and tougher,” Mauresmo said. “So what can I do?”
The 25-year-old said her injury made it impossible to accurately assess Williams' performance. “She had nothing to do but just put the ball back in,” said Mauresmo. “You can't really judge her form.” – AFP