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Azarenka, Serena reach final

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

A day after regaining the world No. 1 ranking, Serena Williams rolled past Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-2 on Saturday night to move into the final of the Qatar Total Open.

The 15-time Grand Slam champion dominated the third-seeded Sharapova, defeating the Russian for the 10th straight time dating back some nine years.

Sharapova has not beaten Williams since 2004, when she bested her in three sets at the WTA Championships. It has been five years since the Russian has even taken a set off Williams.

Williams, the second seed, was set to vie for the title on Sunday with top seed and defending champion Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who exhibited a fine all-around game in a 6-3, 6-3 win over fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland in their semifinal.

The marquee matchup of the tournament did not live up to its billing, as Williams never looked threatened against Sharapova.

Williams mixed a strong serve with deep returns to keep Sharapova off balance throughout the contest.

“It was definitely the best I played this week,” Williams noted. “I had to play better. I’m playing a player that’s very consistent, doesn’t lose often, just usually in the finals and semis. So I had to be on my game today.”

The first set was on serve until the sixth game, when Williams broke Sharapova to take a 4-2 lead. Sharapova double faulted to hand her opponent the break.

The break seemed to energize Williams, who proceeded to take the next game on serve at love to make it 5-2.

Williams had a set point in the eighth game, but Sharapova gritted her teeth and held for 5-3.

The American then wrapped up the set in 32 minutes on serve in the next game when Sharapova hit a return long.

Sharapova, a four-time Grand Slam winner, finally earned her first break point of the match in the second game of the second set, but could not take advantage of it as Williams fought it off and held serve.

Williams then responded by breaking Sharapova in the ensuing game to move ahead 2-1.

The set stayed on serve until the seventh game, when Williams broke again to go up 5-2. She closed out the victory on serve in the next game.

Williams said her performance against Sharapova has given her a boost and, despite all of her accomplishments, she still has the fire.

“I left pretty confident that I can play pretty well or played well,” she said. “I don’t know how I’m still motivated, but I love playing. I love winning.”

“In the first few games it was close,” Sharapova commented. “I thought I had a few opportunities in her service games and I didn’t use that to my advantage.”

Sharapova lamented the chances she let get away.

“I thought I could have returned a lot better,” she said. “The second-serve opportunities I had especially in the beginning, you have got to use those chances. I didn’t and that hurt me.”

Azarenka displayed an amazing capacity to cover large parts of the court in the victory, repeatedly running down shots from Radwanska and producing powerful returns.

Radwanska and Azarenka exchanged breaks in the first two games of the opening set, then the Belarusian broke to go up 3-2.

The set proceeded on serve from there until Radwanska broke again in the ninth game, taking the set with a wicked forehand winner.

The second set brought more of the same, as Azarenka quickly established a 2-0 lead with a break in the second game and then held serve for the remainder of the match.

“She is a terrific player and really improved from last year,” Azarenka said. “I was able to stay focused and make the most of my opportunites. I kept my composure. I have matured in the past year and stepped up my game.”

The win was the seventh straight for Azarenka over Radwanska, who last beat the Belarusian in the semifinals of the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo in October 2011.

“I think it was a really high-performance match from both of us,” Azarenka stated.