Finally, this is the day she would beat Serena Williams.
Surely, that is what Maria Sharapova was thinking as she took a 4-1 lead over top-ranked Williams in the Sony Open semifinal Thursday afternoon. After 14 consecutive losses to Williams over the past decade, Sharapova looked like maybe, just maybe, this was the day she would finally conquer her seemingly invincible foe.
For the first half-hour of the match, Sharapova was finding corners with her ferocious forehand and fending off a handful of break points to build a 4-1 lead.
But then, just when Sharapova saw a rare window of opportunity, Williams slammed that window shut and closed the curtains.
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Sorry, Maria. Not today.
Williams won the next five games, took the first set and advanced to Saturday’s final with a 6-4, 6-3 win. Seeking her record seventh title on Key Biscayne, Williams will play No. 2 Li Na, who advanced to Saturday's final with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 win over Dominika Cibulkova.
Later Thursday, in front of an electric evening crowd, Milos Raonic, the 6-5 Canadian with the booming serve, won the first set against top-ranked Rafael Nadal and gave the Spaniard all he could handle. Nadal hadn’t lost a set against Raonic in their previous four matches and had a rare double-fault on set point to give the Canadian the lead.
But, like Williams, Nadal didn’t panic. He had two early breaks, went up 4-0 in the second set, forced a third set and hung on for a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 win.
The third set included several spectacular rallies and fans “oohed” when Raonic’s serves topped 140 mph. Nadal broke Raonic in the seventh game of the final set to take a 4-3 lead and took advantage of Raonic’s ill-timed errors.
By the end of the match, Raonic had 44 unforced errors to 17 for Nadal.
“There is always pressure playing against a big server like Milos,” said Nadal, who roared and pumped his fists with relief after the win. “It was tough for me. I was lucky to go up early in the second set, and I fought a lot. This tournament is special for me because I feel the love of the people so much.”
Nadal has made three finals here, but never won the title. His semifinal opponent Friday is seventh-seeded Tomas Berdych, a 6-4, 7-6 (7-3) winner over Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine.
Williams said when she trailed 4-1, she was able to regroup mentally and get back on track.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’m only down a break,’ ” Williams said. “The scoreline looked bigger than what it was. I felt if I could just break back, then I would be back in the match. I have always felt when I’m playing at my best then it’s hard for people to beat me.
“But I have to get there, and it’s hard to always be your best.”
Williams has now won 15 in a row against Sharapova and has won 16 of the 18 times they have played. Both of Sharapova’s wins came during the 2004 season — in the Wimbledon final and the WTA Championship final.
It was also the 14th consecutive win over a top-10 player for Williams.
After a decade of futility against her nemesis, Sharapova has learned to appreciate Williams’ strengths.
“That’s why she’s No. 1 in the world,” Sharapova said. “That’s why she’s won so many Grand Slams because we’re out there an hour, three hours, and there is no proof you are going to hold your concentration or your focus for a long period of time.
“There are always going to be drops. But she’s the player that is most capable of coming back from that, regaining focus and concentration.”
Sharapova reached the Sony final the past three years and has the powerful groundstrokes to keep up with Williams.
But she cannot match Williams’ serve. Williams served nine aces, including a 121-mph rocket at deuce in the second-to-last game of the match. Sharapova didn’t have a single ace, and her serves lacked pace.
In the second set, Williams won 11 consecutive points, and Sharapova made errors on the final three points.
“Despite my results against her, I still look forward to playing against her because you learn so much from that type of level which she produces,” Sharapova said. “You finish the match, and you know where you need to improve and the things that you need to work on.”