WIMBLEDON, England - Now it’s Maria Sharapova’s turn to try to solve Serena Williams’ serve on the slick grass of Wimbledon.
Sharapova knows she can, because she has — even if it was a long time ago.
Williams and Sharapova set up a fourth-round showdown at Wimbledon with straight-set victories Saturday. Monday’s matchup will be their eighth meeting, and Williams leads 5-2, but Sharapova won the only previous time they played on grass: in the 2004 final at the All England Club.
“She really knows my game. I think she really studies it. I pretty much know her game,” said Williams, the defending Wimbledon champion. “So I don’t think much has changed. We know each other.”
And Sharapova must know this: Williams is serving as well as ever at the moment.
The top-seeded American hit 19 aces — at least two in each of her nine service games — and breezed to a 6-0, 7-5 victory over Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia at Centre Court on Saturday. Over on Court 1 later in the day, Sharapova had a much tougher time before eliminating Barbora Zahlavova Strycova of the Czech Republic 7-5, 6-3 to get to Wimbledon’s fourth round for the first time since 2007.
Sharapova was broken the first two times she served, double-faulted six times — including once in each of her first four service games — and made 35 unforced errors.
Choosing to look on the bright side after struggling against an opponent who is ranked 68th, is 1-16 against top-20 players, and never has been beyond the third round at a Grand Slam tournament, Sharapova said: “I picked myself up, which is good.”
She’ll need to play much better Monday.
Asked whether the fourth round seems too early for a match against Williams, Sharapova said she’s looking forward to it.
“She’s great on this surface. She’s won numerous Grand Slams. If there’s a challenge ahead of you, it’s definitely playing against her, and I enjoy that,” Sharapova said. “We certainly had a good rivalry building up. We haven’t played for a while, and I was out of the game for a bit. I mean, we never really clashed. ... I love going on the court and playing someone that’s obviously the favorite.”
The other fourth-round matchups established Saturday are No. 3 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark vs. 62nd-ranked Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic; No. 7 Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland vs. No. 9 Li Na of China; and 80th-ranked qualifier Kaia Kanepi of Estonia vs. 66th-ranked Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic.
Kanepi surprised No. 31 Alexandra Dulgheru of Romania 6-1, 6-2, while Zakopalova upset No. 10 Flavia Pennetta of Italy 6-2, 6-3.
“When you face someone who plays the way she did today, there’s not much to say,” Pennetta said. “She doesn’t play like that normally, so I kept hoping her level would drop. But it never did.”
The same could be said of Williams.
It was remarkable to watch her pound serves at up to 120 mph while also managing to place them exactly where she wanted. Backhand side, forehand side, kicking up chalk as the ball landed on a line.
“Serving that well feels awesome,” Williams said. “I serve well at Wimbledon, for some unknown reason. I want to keep doing it. I wish I could serve like this every tournament. For the most part my serve works when I’m in trouble. At Wimbledon, it works the whole match.”
The opening game went this way: ace at 97 mph, service winner at 87 mph, ace at 112 mph, service winner at 90 mph. The second game: ace at 102 mph, a three-stroke point that ended with a backhand winner by Williams, ace at 120 mph, service winner at 109 mph.
And so on.
“I couldn’t even get the ball, not even try to hit a return,” said Cibulkova, who is ranked only 46th now, but was a semifinalist at last year’s French Open. “It was so much pressure on me when she was serving.”
At one point, Cibulkova’s supporters in the player guest box above one baseline yelled encouragement, and she smiled and waved a hand, as if trying to reply, “Hey, buzz off. You want to give this a try?”
Even on those rare occasions when Cibulkova did put a return in play, Williams generally gained the upper hand, finishing with a 15-5 edge in baseline winners.
The first set lasted all of 18 minutes, with Williams winning 25 of 31 points. She’s won the opening set 6-0 in all three of her matches so far.
“I try to do the same thing in the second,” Williams said, “but it just hasn’t been able to work out.”
Said Cibulkova: “I really doubt if somebody can beat her here, if she plays like this.”
Sharapova will give it a shot Monday.
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