Williams, Sharapova to meet in Australian Open quarterfinals

Serena Williams
Serena Williams of the United States hits a forehand return Margarita Gasparyan of Russia during their fourth round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016.(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have confirmed their quarterfinal date at the Australian Open, each advancing in straight sets on Sunday to ensure a rematch in Melbourne Park between last year’s finalists.

Fifth-seeded Sharapova fired a career-high 21 aces and hit 58 winners in her 7-5, 7-5 win over Belinda Bencic in the first match of the day on Rod Laver Arena, converting her second match point with a successful challenge after her forehand was initially called long.

Six-time champion Williams followed it up with a 55-minute, 6-2, 6-1 win over Margarita Gasparyan.

Williams has won 18 of her 20 matches against Sharapova, including the last 17.

Asked if that gave her extra confidence, the 21-time major winner said it didn’t matter who she was playing.

“I just feel like I’m really confident in my game right now, not against her or against any other opponent,” in particular, Williams said. “I’m just really looking at me right now, and I feel like if I can just continue to play well, then it could be good.”

Williams won 26 matches in a row at the majors last season, capturing the Australia, French and Wimbledon titles and reaching the semifinals at the U.S. Open before a stunning loss to Roberta Vinci ended her run for a calendar-year Grand Slam.

That’s the driving factor here.

“For my whole career I have been motivated by losses. So that’s just been my thing,” she said. “So each time I take a loss, I feel like I get better.”

Margaret Court, the Australian great who won 24 Grand Slam singles titles and has a court named in her honor at Melbourne Park, was in the crowd watching Williams.

Under bright sunshine after the roof was opened following morning rain, Williams was broken in the opening game — her only point coming from an ace — but quickly found her groove and won 12 of the next 14.

“Well, gosh, I didn’t know she was here, I feel honored to be able to play in front of her,” Williams said when told Court was in the stands, then looked up to the VIP area and added: “Thank you.”

“Obviously 24 is close, but yet it’s so far away,” Williams said of Court’s career record.

Williams was keeping an eye on an earlier match, too, noting that Sharapova “had a really good win today.”

Sharapova won consecutive matches against Williams in 2004 at Wimbledon and the season-ending championships, but hasn’t won since. It’s a statistic she tries to block from her mind.

“It’s not like I think about what I can do worse. You’re always trying to improve,” she said. “I got myself into the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam. There is no reason I shouldn’t be looking to improve and to getting my game in a better position than any other previous round. It’s only going to be tougher, especially against Serena.

“I look forward to playing the best in the world and that’s what she’s proven in the last year.”

Sharapova, the 2008 champion and four-time finalist, had to play under an indoor match because play started while it was lightly raining, but the roof was open for Williams.

Kei Nishikori was the first male player through to the quarterfinals, beating No. 9-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in front of a partisan crowd filled with flag-waving Japanese fans.

The seventh-seeded Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open finalist, also reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open last year and in 2012.

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