Sharapova closer to elusive title

MIAMI -- This time every year, Yuri Sharapova would pack up his young daughter Maria and drive the four hours down from Bradenton, Fla.

It never went as fast as she wanted it to.

Maria fondly remembers watching fellow Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov. She particularly loved the atmosphere in the stadium when the festive late-night Latin crowds lived and died with every shot of Marcelo Rios.

Only a few years removed from living in the remote oil town of Nyagan -- in Siberia, of all places -- the shimmering heat and the swishing palm trees must have felt very much like paradise.

"Yeah," Sharapova said the other day, "I was a fan, and now I'm a player here."

She has a rare career Grand Slam. She also makes more money in endorsements and has more Facebook followers (8.8 million) than any female athlete on the planet, but Sharapova has never returned to this nostalgic place in her memory as a champion. Four times, she has been to the final but fell to, in order, Kim Clijsters (2005), Svetlana Kuznetsova (2006), Victoria Azarenka (2011) and Agnieszka Radwanska (2012).

"It's one of the biggest tournaments for us, and it's one that I am most consistent at being in four finals but not winning it yet," Sharapova said. "I would definitely love to go a step further here."

A year ago, Sharapova won her first French Open title in 10 tournaments at Roland Garros -- and clay is, by far, her worst surface. Perhaps her breakthrough at the Sony Open will come this year.

On Wednesday, Sharapova did what she usually does to a lower-ranked opponent. When you're ranked No. 2 among WTA players, that's going to add up to a lot of wins. She defeated Sara Errani of Italy 7-5, 7-5 to reach Thursday's semifinals.

It was hardly as easy as the score might suggest. Errani is a relentlessly tenacious player, who manages to keep the ball in play. The first set alone lasted 1 hour, 19 minutes and saw Sharapova hit 31 unforced errors and commit seven double faults.

The grinding match consumed 2 hours, 29 minutes, and Sharapova finished with 44 winners and 57 unforced errors -- 13 of them double faults. The two players combined to collect 28 break points and orchestrate 10 breaks of serve.

Sharapova will meet the winner of the Roberta Vinci-Jelena Jankovic evening match and, considering that they are ranked No. 15 and No. 24, respectively, a berth in the final seems likely.

"I feel very lucky that I'm through," Sharapova said. "She had her chances to win that second set. Who knows what would have happened. Yeah, I'm lucky to get to the next one."

While her serve -- particularly after career-threatening shoulder surgery -- is still wildly inconsistent, Sharapova's results are not. She has won her last 44 matches against players ranked outside the top 20. Parsing it a different way, since the start of 2008, Sharapova is 177-31 in matches when she is the higher-ranked player. This explains why she has reached the quarterfinals in her last 12 hard-court events.

This is her 11th season of Grand Slam competition, and it's sometimes hard to remember that she is still only 25 years old. In fact, she was the third-youngest quarterfinalist -- and Errani was born just 10 days earlier in 1987.

Sharapova won the first three games of the match before Errani began to catch up with the speed of her groundstrokes and first serve. Errani pulled back even at 5-all and had two game points for what would have been her first lead of the set. But a double fault and a wide forehand kept Sharapova in it before two big serves allowed her to convert her third set point.

The second set was similarly sticky. Errani secured three set points at 5-4, but on each occasion, Sharapova responded with a clean winner.

In the end, the disparity in height and leverage was too much to overcome for Errani, who stands 5-foot-4½ inches. At 6-2, Sharapova is the tallest of the top 10 players -- by two inches.

Despite the effort required, Sharapova has a nice little streak going. After winning the Indian Wells title, she has won 10 straight matches and 20 straight sets. Serena Williams, against whom she has lost 11 of 13 matches, could be her opponent in the championship final. Sharapova could become only the third woman ever to complete the Indian Wells-Miami double.

"It's one of the toughest back to backs of the year," Sharapova said. "It's the amount of matches. You know, the recovery. Also coming from different coasts. It's not easy."

Sharapova arrived from Russia at the age of 9 and took up residence at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy. Rios practiced there, and Maria was a big fan.

"I was quite young at the time," she said. "I don't think he would want to hit with me. He was too good for me. But it was nice to have a picture with him.

"I still have it."