Serena Williams into Brisbane final
BRISBANE, Australia -- Serena Williams extended her winning streak against Maria Sharapova to 14 matches with a 6-2, 7-6 (7) semifinal victory Friday to earn a shot at back-to-back Brisbane International titles.
The defending champion will play second-seeded Victoria Azarenka in Saturday's final, and will be favored to retain the title that kicked off her stunning 2013 season that included 78 wins from 82 matches and 11 titles.
After blowing two match points in the tiebreaker, Williams sealed the win with her seventh ace against the third-seeded Sharapova.
In their first meeting since the French Open final, the uneasy rivals barely exchanged glances before the match and only briefly shook hands after.
Both players were returning aggressively -- leading to 15 double-faults between them and six breaks of serve in the second set -- and hitting their grounds strokes hard and deep. Williams hit consecutive double-faults to give Sharapova a mini-break at 5-4 in the tiebreaker, something she said she couldn't remember ever doing before on tour. Sharapova responded with a double-fault to make it 5-5, and said she'd missed her opportunities.
"I had a few missed chances ... but overall I'm happy I can compete at this level in my third match back," Sharapova said. "It's a good sign for me."
Any friendship that existed between the pair soured when they traded personal barbs relating to their romantic relationships ahead of last year's Wimbledon, where Sharapova made an early exit.
Sharapova only played one match after that in 2013 as she recovered from a right shoulder problem.
Williams said she'd need to vastly improve her first-serve percentage -- which sunk to 40 in the semifinals -- to beat Australian Open champion Azarenka, who overcame a shaky serve and another case of the nerves to beat former No. 1-ranked Jelena Jankovic 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Facing two of her biggest rivals back-to-back in her first tournament of the year, and less than two weeks before the Australian Open, is a big step up in preparations for Williams.
"Yeah, I feel like I'm being pushed into the deep end straightaway," she said. "I also think it's a good thing."
Azarenka had her problems on serve, too. She dropped her first three service games and was facing three break points in the opening game of the second set when she shifted the momentum with a winner she picked up on a half-volley when Jankovic was in control of the point.
After needing 10 match points to beat Stefanie Voegele in the quarterfinals the previous night, Azarenka missed one chance to serve it out at 5-2 in the deciding set, conceding a break with a double-fault.
She then missed a match point at 5-4 but held her nerve and finally finished it off on her second match point.
The prospect of a match against another top four player so close to the Australian Open doesn't daunt Azarenka.
"I don't think it's ever too early. If you want to win big titles you got to play against the best players," she said.
Second-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan reached the semifinals with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-2 win over Marin Cilic of Croatia and will next play former No. 1-ranked Lleyton Hewitt, who cruised past Romanian qualifier Marius Copil 6-4, 6-2.
Venus Williams got a walkover into her first final since October 2012 when Jamie Hampton withdrew from their semifinal with a right hip injury. Ivanovic beat third-seeded Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium 6-2, 7-6 (3).
At the Hopman Cup, France clinched a place in the final against Poland with a victory over winless Spain.
The Czech Republic took a 3-0 win over the United States after John Isner withdrew ahead of his singles match and Sloane Stephens retired with a left wrist problem after losing the first set 6-3 to Petra Kvitova.