Top seed Serena Williams remains on a collision course with arch-rival Maria Sharapova after rampaging into the Australian Open semi-finals on Wednesday.
The 18-time Grand Slam champion was at her brutal best, crushing last year’s finalist Dominka Cibulkova in straight sets to set up an all-American last four showdown with unseeded teenager Madison Keys.
The other semi-final clash on Thursday is an all-Russian affair between second seed Sharapova, who owns five Grand Slam titles, and Ekaterina Makarova, seeded tenth.
Both star players have hit top form as the tournament progresses and are hot favourites to advance to Saturday’s final.
Williams, 33, is contesting her 26th Slam semi-final after pummelling Cibulkova 6-2, 6-2, while it is 19-year-old Keys’ first experience of the final four in a major.
The world number 35 showed her talent with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 quarter-final win to end Venus Williams’ stirring return to the Grand Slam big time but aggravated a long-standing thigh injury during the bruising encounter.
Williams tipped Keys as a future Slam champion, but will be conceding nothing on court to an opponent who stopped her and Venus from facing each other at a major for the first time since 2009.
“Obviously, this is her first semi-finals. I’m sure there’s going to be many more, including Grand Slam wins, for Madison,” she said of the big-serving baseliner, who is coached by former great Lindsay Davenport.
The pair have never played before and Williams must win to claim a 19th title that would put her a clear second on the all-time Open Era winners’ list and ensure she retains the world number one spot.
Williams has made the Australian semis five times before and always gone on the claim the title.
– ‘Great fighter’-
Sharapova, who triumphed at Melbourne Park in 2008 and has lost the final twice, goes into her semi-final with a 5-0 record over Makarova, including two quarter-finals at the Australian Open (2012 and 2013).
The 27-year-old insisted “there’s no secrets” in Makarova’s game but is wary of the threat from an underdog playing with no pressure.
“That’s always a tricky situation because she’s going to come into that match free and almost happy to be in that situation, and that’s dangerous,” she said.
Sharapova, who brushed aside Canadian rising star Eugenie Bouchard to make the semis, said the left-handed Makarova’s serve could also be a problem.
“I haven’t faced a lefty in this tournament yet. She’s been using her lefty serve extremely well from what I’ve seen. I’ll be looking out for that, work on a few things,” she said.
The 26-year-old Makarova has broken into the top 20 and reached the 2014 US Open semis since she last played Sharapova and world number three Simona Halep warned that her game had matured.
“I was expecting she will hit more stronger, but she didn’t. She played very soft tennis,” said the Romanian, who was humiliated 6-4, 6-0 by the quietly spoken Russian in their quarter-final. “She opened the angles very well. So was a different game.”
Makarova, the only semi-finalist not to drop a set on the way to the last four, was full of praise for Sharapova’s never-say-die attitude as she seeks to make her first ever Grand Slam final.
“I never beat her, so it will be tough. Definitely she’s a great fighter,” she said.
In the meantime, raging favourite Novak Djokovic will play defending champion Stan Wawrinka in in the semi-finals of the men singles.
The Serb world number one bossed Canada’s eighth seed Milos Raonic in straight sets to storm into his fifth Australian semi.
Swiss fourth seed Wawrinka frittered five match points but still was an easy winner over Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori, taking it 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (8/6) in just over two hours.
Djokovic was in irrepressible form in dominating power-serving Raonic 7-6 (7/5), 6-4, 6-2 in a similar time in the night match on Rod Laver Arena.
The winner will face either Britain’s Andy Murray or Czech Tomas Berdych in Sunday’s final.
Wawrinka upset Djokovic in last year’s quarter-finals on the way to winning the Australian Open for his first major title, but the world number one looks in formidable form going forward.
He was ruthless against Raonic, hitting 33 winners and just 17 unforced errors, with three service breaks and winning 89 percent of his first serves.
It will be his 25th Grand Slam semi-final on Friday.
Raonic, one of the biggest servers in men’s tennis, could not get one break point on Djokovic’s serve, with the Serb now dropping only one service game in the tournament.
“Tonight there was not much I could complain about,” Djokovic said.
“From the first game till the last I played the way I wanted. I created a lot of break point opportunities.
“The key of tonight’s match was to get as many balls back in play. I executed very, very well. It’s easier said than done, but I feel very good about my game in this moment.
“I served very well and overall it was a great match against one of the up and coming rising stars.”
Despite the jitters when serving for the match in the tiebreaker Wawrinka was in commanding form against Nishikori.
The Japanese star had mastered the Swiss over five sets in the quarter-finals at last year’s US Open, but it was a far different outcome this time.
Wawrinka dominated with his serve and backhand to reach his third Grand Slam semi-final and a chance of playing in back-to-back finals at the Australian Open.
He broke Nishikori’s service three times and lost serve only once, while winning 86 percent of his first-serve points.
Wawrinka looked set to romp away with the tiebreaker in the final set, holding five match points at 6-1 only to tighten up and almost throw it away.
“I know I now have a Grand Slam trophy at home. I also won the Davis Cup. I have confidence from that,” said the Swiss.
“I know I can make it. I trust my game. I trust myself on the court even when we start to play in a semi-final or final at a Grand Slam.”
Britain’s Andy Murray and Czech Tomas Berdych play in the other semi-final on Thursday. – Agence France-Presse