Saturday, January 31, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: I love playing Sharapova, says Serena Williams

There are probably few things scarier than facing a calm and relaxed Serena Williams.

The world No1 claims she decided in the middle of last year that she no longer had to win, but that the goal was to relax and enjoy her time on court.

The new approach clearly worked. After failing to pass the fourth round in the first three majors of 2014, Williams captured the US Open to register her 18th grand slam title victory before triumphing at the WTA Finals in Singapore.

At 33, Williams became the oldest women’s finalist in Melbourne in the Open Era when she beat Madison Keys in the last four on Thursday.

She is now looking to pull-off the US Open-Australian Open back-to-back double for the third time in her career – only Steffi Graf has managed to achieve that feat three times.

Williams has never lost a final at Melbourne Park and is gunning for a record-extending sixth Australian Open crown when she takes on the second-seeded Maria Sharapova in the final on Saturday. But Williams has not won a title here in five years and she admits her expectations were low coming into the tournament.

It's been so long since I've even been in a final here. I was kind of like ‘oh, let me just try’,” said the No1 seed. “My theory now is to relax and play the match as best as I can. When I step on the court and hear the announcer, I don't have to win anymore. I can just relax and have fun.

It started last year because I was so hyped on getting to 18 and I lost every grand slam early. I didn't make it to an quarter-finals. Then after Wimbledon I decided to just not… not necessarily not care, but just relax. It all kind of came back for me after that. And I think it's been working.”

This is hardly good news for Sharapova, who hasn’t beaten Williams in over a decade – a stretch that includes 15 consecutive losses to the American.

Garbine Muguruza, a young Spaniard who beat Williams last year at the French Open, has her views on why Sharapova has such a horrid record against the world No1.

I think the way she plays is not the way to beat Serena,” said Muguruza earlier this week. “I think Serena has the game to beat Maria. Obviously has to be mental. When you are losing to her 10 years, there is something in your head blocking during the match. I think maybe she has to improve more the way she plays to beat her.”

Williams agrees. She is 16-2 against Sharapova lifetime and believes her game is perfectly suited to face the Russian.

I take a lot of pride in it (my record against Sharapova). I think my game matches up well against her. I love playing her. I think it's fun. I love her intensity. For whatever reason, I love playing. I just have the time of my life,” said Williams, who is on a 10-match winning streak in tournament finals.

Sharapova is trying to focus on the positives as approaches another daunting clash with her nemesis.

The 27-year-old will be playing her fourth Australian Open final (won 2008, lost 2007 and 2012) and has been flying this fortnight since she saved two match points to beat Alexandra Panova in the second round.

I felt that I've had really good matches and a good record here in Australia, even since the junior days. Been able to carry it over as a professional. Yeah, I've had many great memories on Rod Laver Arena. I've hopefully set myself up for another good one,” said Sharapova, who is 7-13 lifetime against world No1s.

I think my confidence should be pretty high going into a final of a grand slam no matter who I'm facing against and whether I've had a terrible record, to say the least, against someone. It doesn't matter. I got there for a reason. I belong in that spot. I will do everything I can to get the title.”

Saturday’s final is the first Australian Open women’s title match between the top two seeds since top-seeded Justine Henin defeated second-seeded Kim Clijsters in 2004.

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