Sharapova eyes first Sony Open title

Benefiting from some dubious scheduling that did her opponent no favors, Maria Sharapova powered her way into the final of the Sony Open — a tournament she has never won — for the fifth time with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic.

Sharapova will face Serena Williams, who advanced to the Sony Open final by drubbing Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0, 6-3 in the late match on Thursday.

Both Sharapova and Jankovic had battled through tough quarterfinals on Wednesday but Jankovic had played the late match — and it showed. “I finished my match last night at 11 p.m. and went to sleep at 1 a.m.,” Jankovic said. “Woke up early and had to play. I felt heavy on court. I felt really tired and exhausted.”

Sharapova understood where Jankovic was coming from but was only partially sympathetic. “Unfortunately, I’m selfishly not thinking about that when I’m out on court,” said the world No. 2. “It is my job to try and win the match as well as I can and if I didn’t have a late match yesterday, I had a long one so it was important for me to physically and mentally be there.”

Both their matches had lasted exactly 2 hours, 30 minutes and it was clear that Jankovic was not sharp. “Maria played really well today,” Jankovic said. “She was playing her tennis from the start. From my part, I didn’t do my job. I served poorly today. So I wasn’t playing the way I wanted to, especially on a big occasion like the semifinals.”

Sharapova, always searching of ways to improve her performance, has recently hired Nicolas Kiefer, a former world No. 5, as a hitting partner. Always prepared to laugh at herself, Maria suggested that “he must be bored, incredibly bored in that little town in Germany” to want to come and hit with her on the tour. But she went on to talk about the importance for players to have the right people around them.

“It’s so important,” she said. “There are little pieces of the puzzle that can make or break a player’s career. When you’re trying to break through to the next level, there are voices around you. The guidance that you have is so important. The people that take care of your body; that have a plan in place; that do the fitness; that also have to get along as a group. I’ve been fortunate in having a fairly consistent team. I’ve changed coaches a couple of times but I have been very lucky with the people I have had on my team.”

Apart from her teenage mentor Robert Lansdorp, Michael Joyce, a former ATP pro from California who coached her during the early part of her career and now the Swede, Thomas Hogstedt, have been the prime influences on this increasingly impressive athlete who, at 25, is poised to enjoy her best years on the tour.

Sharapova is now into her second consecutive final after winning at Indian Wells 12 days ago and, should she win here, she would emulate Kim Clijsters, the last person to win both back in 2005.

“To be able to recover in just a few days is something I’m proud of,” she said. “Physically, many years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I am still young. I’m 25 years old but I’m not 18 any more and I’ve learned that recovery is now more important in my career than anything else.”

Andy Murray has been talking about the physical stress of competing week in and week out on the circuit, which is why he spends so much time with his fitness team in Miami when he is not touring. He is now a considerable athlete and looked it in the first men’s match of the day when he beat back a second set counter attack from Croatia’s Marin Cilic to win 6-4, 6-3 — a score line that does little reflect how close the duel became in the second set.

“I think today was probably the best match for me,” Murray said. “It was a tough, tough match. Second set, especially, had a lot of long, long games and tough points.”

None tougher than the pivotal fourth game of that second set. Murray had already broken to lead 2-1 but Cilic, who had been spraying the ball all over the place a few minutes earlier, suddenly found his range and began attacking the net. The tall Croat used his long reach to get himself to break back point four times but found himself thwarted on each occasion; once by an ace and then by a superb drop shot that required both skill and confidence to play on such an important point.

Once he had held on to increase his lead, Murray seemed to be heading for victory until Cilic broke him when he served for the match. In the end, the world No. 3 needed a total of seven match points before he could secure victory and a place in Friday’s semi-final.