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Maria Sharapova's improved serve could prove pivotal versus Serena Williams

MELBOURNE, Australia -- After playing Maria Sharapova for the first time in her career Sunday at the Australian Open, 18-year-old Belinda Bencic was asked what stood out about the legendary player who is a decade older. "That her scream is not so loud,'' the teenager replied.

Bencic laughed and said she was only joking. (Really, when does Maria's screaming/grunting not sound loud?) Instead, she said, what stood out most in her fourth-round loss to Sharapova was her opponent's serve. "Probably she's serving the best now in this moment,'' Bencic said. "Once she plays Serena [Williams], it will be ace, ace, ace, everything. It will be an interesting match.''

Just how interesting -- and close -- remains to be seen. With Sharapova beating Bencic 7-5, 7-5 and Williams whipping Margarita Gasparyan 6-2, 6-1, we are set for a quarterfinal match between the biggest names in women's tennis. But what chance does Sharapova actually have? Williams has won 17 consecutive matches against Sharapova, including the Australian Open final last year. On top of that, Serena has won 12 of the past 13 matches in straight sets.

"It's not like I think about what I can do worse,'' Sharapova said when asked how much she looks back on all those losses to Williams. "You're always trying to improve. 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.''

Though she made a lot of unforced errors (46) Sunday, one thing Sharapova has going for her is an improved serve. She has 52 aces this tournament, the most of any woman, and 27 more than Williams. She especially showed the strength of that serve against Bencic, out-acing her 21-0. She averaged 103 mph per serve during the nearly two-hour match, a tad higher than what Serena averaged (102 mph) in her much shorter match Sunday.

Bencic beat Williams in Toronto last summer. Asked to describe the difference between playing Sharapova and the woman with the game's best serve, Bencic replied, "Today I didn't feel like there was a difference serving. It was even tougher against Maria. She was acing everything, no?''

Interesting trivia: Last summer in Toronto, Bencic was the first teen to beat Williams since the 2004 WTA Finals, when she was defeated by -- guess who? -- Sharapova. That gave Sharapova a 2-1 lead in their career matchups. She hasn't beaten Williams since.

But perhaps serving well here will help. It certainly can't hurt. Sharapova says she has been working on her serve a lot since undergoing shoulder surgery (she had surgery in 2008, and re-injured her shoulder in 2013).

"I have gone through many different motions to try to find my groove again and something that would hold up over many matches,'' she said. "That was something that was really difficult to find a rhythm and a balance between keeping the shoulder, not going back so much -- because I'm quite loose -- to a motion that kind of gave me the chance to play many matches and feel like I was still not able not to be tired after three, four tough matches.''

There were concerns about the health of both Sharapova and Williams entering this tournament. Sharapova missed several months last year because of a right leg injury, and pulled out of Brisbane because of a sore forearm. Williams called it quits after her U.S. Open loss, turned 34 and withdrew from the Hopman Cup because of inflammation in her left knee. But both players now appear to be just fine, especially Serena. She has won every set here, and her past two matches lasted only 44 and 55 minutes, respectively.

Naturally, Williams said there was always room for improvement, specifying her serve was not up to snuff Sunday. As for her thoughts on Sharapova, Williams said, "She always brings in something new and something special. She's very consistent, as well. She's one player that's always consistently winning and training and working hard and winning matches.''

Unless those matches are against Williams.

Having beaten Serena much more recently than Sharapova, does Bencic have any advice for Maria? (Apart from screaming/grunting louder?)

"I don't think I'm in the position to give Maria any advice,'' she said. "I mean, she's such a champion. Obviously, Serena, too. ... It will be also a tough match. Yeah, I'm definitely gonna be watching and learning.''