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Beyond the Baseline

Serena Williams drops Maria Sharapova to advance to Sony Open finals

Serena Williams improved her career head-to-head record against Maria Sharapova to 16-2 with the win in the Sony Open semifinals. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) Serena Williams improved to 16-2 against Maria Sharapova. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

No. 1 Serena Williams defeated No. 7 Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-3 on Thursday to advance to the Sony Open final for the ninth time. The six-time champion extended her winning streak over the Russian to 15 and now awaits No. 2 Li Na in Saturday's championship match.

Sharapova showed she's getting closer to solving her Serena problem, building a 4-1 lead in the first set and coming within a point of a 3-0 lead in the second set. But once again, Williams reeled her opponent back in with steady baseline play and clutch serving. Williams served nine aces -- most came when she was behind in the score or on game point -- and hit 21 winners to 22 unforced errors; Sharapova hit 15 winners to 29 unforced errors.

"I wasn't playing my best," Williams said. "I knew if I wanted to stay in the tournament and make another final, I just had to play better."

Sharapova fell to 2-16 against Williams and remains winless since 2004. She will slip to No. 9 or No. 10 on Monday, her lowest ranking since 2011.

"Despite my results against her, I still look forward to playing against her because you learn so much from that type of level she produces," Sharapova said. "You finish the match, and you know where you need to improve and the things that you need to work on."

Game-by-game analysis below:

Second Set

2:50 p.m. ET | Serena Williams defeats Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-3 to advance to the Sony Open final. 

From 40-15, Sharapova can't close the game. At deuce No. 2, she puts a backhand into the middle of the net and her body language is basically this.

Serena converts her first match point as Maria nets a forehand down the line.

The 6-4, 6-3 scoreline doesn't reflect how close Sharapova was able to keep this match. She led 4-1 in the first set and 2-0 in the second set and was just two points from getting a chance to serve out the first set and one point from a 3-0 lead in the second. I think this graphic sums it all up:

Despite all that, Serena does what she has always done in this rivarly. She stayed steady and remained confident that her B-game is still better than Sharapova's A-game. When she finally found her rhythm on the serve, this one was all over. Sharapova once again couldn't sustain the high level needed to beat Serena over the course of a full match.

Highlights from the match below:

http://youtu.be/VpxqnQrGZJw

There are still positives for Sharapova to take from the match. Using the body serve, as her coach emphasized, definitely worked, and I expect we'll see that tactic more often in future meetings. Until she gets her serve worked out, though, this will continue to be a tough matchup for her. Here are the match stats. Sharapova hit just four winners in the second set compared to 11 in the first.

2:45 p.m. ET | Serena holds, leads 5-3*.

Serena builds a 40-0 lead easily and then meets Sharapova at deuce as a few errors creep in. A big ace down the tee gets her back to game point and she holds to go ahead 5-3.

Everyone talks about Serena's serve as if it's just a power shot, but what makes it a true weapon is that she can crack those aces on the big points. That's not just a credit to her mechanics, which hold up under pressure, but also her mental fortitude.

Sharapova needed a bigger serving day to get into Serena's head. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) Sharapova needed a bigger serving day to get into Serena's head. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

2:40 p.m. ET | Serena breaks, leads *4-3.

Ah, the magical Game 7. Serena makes her push and earns a 0-30 lead on Sharapova's serve. A backhand error from Sharapova into the net and it's triple break point for Serena. First serve doesn't get close enough to Serena's body, and the American winds up and slaps a backhand cross-court return at which Sharapova can only lunge. She puts it into the net and Serena breaks.

The way Serena is serving right now, that feels like match point.

2:36 p.m. ET | Serena holds, tied 3-3*.

Sharapova gets to 40-15 but here we are back at deuce thanks to some very big hitting from Serena. Good effort from Maria to hold with some clean, deep hitting of her own into the corners and then a service winner up the tee.

I can't shake the image of Sharapova as Charlie Brown in this matchup. It doesn't help that she's basically wearing Charlie Brown colors. Serena and her Miami Dolphins-themed kit just keep pulling away the football.

Serena holds at love in a blink. She's not giving Sharapova any time to catch her breath.

NGUYEN: Fashion misses at the Sony Open

2:27 p.m. ET | Williams holds, tied 2-2*.

Deuce game on Serena's serve but she finally gets out of it. Still calm and intense, if not a little nonplussed.

2:20 p.m. ET | Williams breaks, trails 2-1*.

Big service game for Maria. She's stuck at deuce after building a 40-15 lead, but some fine hitting into the corners keeps Serena on a string and Sharapova earns game point when Serena puts a running forehand long.

Indecision for Sharapova on game point and she's back at deuce. Had a chance to come into the net to finish off a point, but backed up and let Serena into the point. She's angry, as she should be.

She earns another game point, but Serena saves it with a perfectly placed cross-court backhand return that lands on the sideline and spins away. Deuce.

Serena baits Sharapova with a high, looping forehand to her forehand and Sharapova overplays it. Goes for the big winner down the line and sprays it wide to give Serena a break point to get back on serve.

Sharapova double-faults. Oops.

2:15 p.m. ET | Sharapova breaks, leads *2-0.

We'll see if Sharapova can keep her head on straight after that disappointing stretch. She finally stops Serena's run of games with a clean hold.

And not so fast, says Sharapova. She gets break points at 15-40 on Serena's first service game of the set. Sharapova converts on the first, as Serena misses a forehand into the net. A little sloppy from Serena but that was a good, intense game from Sharapova.

First Set

2:02 p.m. ET | Williams wins the first set 6-4. 

After all that drama, Serena calmly and coolly ends the set with a love hold. No celebration, no fist pump. Just a slow walk back to her chair.

On the changeover, coach Sven Groeneveld is trying to reassure Sharapova, but I'm not sure it's working. "The plan is working," he says. Sharapova scoffs. He says to keep at it and the opportunities will come again. Sharapova grabs a banana. I'm not sure she's convinced.

Equal number of winners from both women, which is surprising. On paper, Serena should be able to exploit Sharapova's movement and do better. But those aces weren't just easy points; they were hit at key moments of the match to snuff out Sharapova's momentum.

2:00 p.m. ET | Williams breaks, leads *5-4. 

Sharapova falls to 0-30, gets it back to even at 30-all but then plays a surprisingly passive point to give Serena a break point. That's all Serena needs as she's hitting better off both wings now, and Sharapova can't absorb the pace. She puts a ball into the net and that's four straight games for Serena after being down 1-4.

The No. 1 will serve for the set.

Serena's brand of offense proving too much -- again -- for Sharapova. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) Serena's brand of offense proving too much -- again -- for Sharapova. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

1:55 p.m. ET | Williams holds, tied 4-4*. 

Serena falls to 0-30 but fires back-to-back aces to level.

The two trade big cross-court forehands until Sharapova steps in and cranks a big one down the line for the winner to earn break point.

Serena is finding the groove on her serve just in time. Another big service winner saves break point and another one earns her game point.

And what else but an ace on game point to earn the hold? Two aces and three service winners in that game. That's just cruel.

1:49 p.m. ET | Williams holds and breaks, trails *3-4.

Serena responds with a hold to 15.

Sharapova digs another hole on her serve, down 15-40 as she sprays a backhand long. This time Serena finally converts. She plays a patient point as the wind seems to wreak havoc on the ball, and finally Sharapova puts another ball long.

We're back on serve. As well as Sharapova has started this match, it's hard, as Team Williams said, to think she can keep it up. There's bound to be a letdown when you're red-lining, and from Serena's perspective, her own game can get so much better.

1:41 p.m. ET | Sharapova breaks and holds, leads 4-1*.

Sharapova gets to 0-40 quickly. She hits a great lob at 0-15 that Serena can only frame, then a huge return winner to earn her break points.

Serena saves two break points but can't save a third. Good placement of a forehand wide to Serena's forehand and Sharapova earns the error. She breaks. Wow.

Earlier this week, Sharapova said the key against Serena is seizing her opportunities. She definitely did that there, but can she consolidate?

Yes, she can. Sharapova follows it up with a hold at 15. Hits an impressive forehand pick-up winner from the baseline in that game. Who knew she had the hands and timing for that one?

Sharapova really mixing up her serves well. Using the body serve a lot but throwing in the sliders to keep Serena guessing. Good game plan and, more important, good execution early.

1:32 p.m. ET | Sharapova holds, leads 2-1*.

Trailing 0-30, Sharapova plays a pitch-perfect point -- she had to hit sidelines to do it -- to get on the board. But her second double fault gives Serena two break points again at 15-40.

Good kick serve from Sharapova earns a netted return to save the first break point. Then a huge save from Sharapova on the second. Great defense from Serena turns the rally on its head, but Sharapova responds with some desperate defense of her own, tracking down a lunging forehand, which results in a mid-court ball that Serena races up to but hits into the net. Deuce.

Sharapova holds with a big forehand winner. Serena now 0 for 4 on break points early. These hard-fought holds have to make Sharapova believe she's in this one today.

1:24 p.m. ET | Williams holds, tied 1-1*.

Serena struggling on her forehand early. She's hitting a little flat-footed and letting the ball come to her, which is not ideal in the wind.

The game goes to deuce but Serena holds, punctuating it with an ace. Sharapova had a look in that game, but two bad unforced errors from the baseline did her in.

1:20 p.m. ET | Sharapova holds, leads 1-0*.

Sharapova's first serve of the match indeed goes to the body. She wins the point. Sharapova sends a body serve on a second serve on the next point. She loses the point. First-serve percentage is always a key stat in this matchup. Sharapova can't give Serena a look at her second serve. She'll crush it.

First double fault comes on Point No. 3.

Quintessential Sharapova-Serena point won by Serena to earn break points. Sharapova hits a great cross-court forehand that would be a winner against anyone else. Serena tracks it down, sends back a neutral ball and Sharapova eventually makes the error. The combination of speed and power just puts so much pressure on Sharapova's low-margin game.

Huge hold for Sharapova to save two break points from 15-40. Got a few errors from the Serena forehand.

1:13 p.m. ET | Warm-up

At some point, you have to think the chips will fall Sharapova's way in this matchup, but I'd be very surprised if that happens today. She's still undercooked after her long injury break and Miami is Serena's house. Serena seems to be in good form, too, after her clinical quarterfinal win over Angelique Kerber.

To top it all off, the wind is swirling on court. With Serena's serve and her ability to play with more margin and spin, she should have the advantage. She's going to have to keep her feet active, though. The key to playing in the wind is footwork and patience.

The best pre-match quote comes from Serena: "I love playing her. I really do. Doesn't matter what surface or anything. She's one of my favorite people to play." I'm sure Maria's happy to hear that.

Nice to see this match being carried live on ESPN2. It doesn't make up for last night's debacle of showing Roger Federer-Kei Nishikori on tape delay -- did they think tennis fans wouldn't notice? -- but it's something.

ESPN's Darren Cahill has talked to both coaches. Sven Groeneveld says Sharapova needs to hold the same level she had in their match in Brisbane and use the body serve more, which is a serve Maria doesn't like. Patrick Mouratoglou says Sharapova tends to overplay (duh) and Team Williams just doesn't think she can play at that level for a full match.

Sharapova will serve first.

Ready? Play.

Pre-match

No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 7 Maria Sharapova will meet in the semifinals of the Sony Open on Thursday. ESPN2 will televise the match, which is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET.

Williams, a six-time champion in Miami, is rounding into form after being unhappy with her play in early-round victories over Yaroslava Shvedova and Caroline Garcia. She lost only four games in each of the last two matches, beating Coco Vandeweghe 6-3, 6-1 in the fourth round and ninth-ranked Angelique Kerber 6-2, 6-2 in the quarterfinals.

Sharapova, who is seeking her first Sony Open title, needed three sets to beat Lucie Safarova and Kirsten Flipkens in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, before dispatching No. 8 Petra Kvitova 7-5, 6-1 in the quarterfinals.

Williams has won 14 consecutive matches against Sharapova and leads 15-2 overall. Both of Sharapova's victories came in 2004, and she has lost 21 of the last 22 sets to Williams. In their only other meeting this year, Williams defeated Sharapova 6-2, 7-6 (7) in the semifinals of the Brisbane International in January.

"There are certainly ways that I need to step up in certain situations that I haven't been able to do in the past against her," Sharapova said. "But it's great that I have come to that stage and have the opportunity to play her again."

The winner will play either No. 2 Li Na or No. 11 Dominika Cibulkova.

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