* Russian to face Li Na in last four encounter
* Sets record for games conceded (Adds details, quotes)
MELBOURNE, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Maria Sharapova’s biggest challenge to achieving her second Australian Open title, apart from Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams, could actually be between her ears.
Not that anyone has managed to exploit any mental deficiencies in the world number two... yet.
The Russian not only continued her perfect run in Australian Open quarter-finals on Tuesday by swatting aside Russian compatriot Ekaterina Makarova 6-2 6-2 to set up a semi-final against Li Na, she also set a record at the grand slam.
With her 66-minute victory, Sharapova has now dropped just nine games in total, the fewest number conceded by a semi-finalist at the tournament.
Monica Seles conceded 12 games on her way to the 1991 semi-finals. Seles went on to win the title.
The world number two, along with defending champion Azarenka and 15-times grand slam winner Williams, have been a class above the rest of the women’s draw at Melbourne Park with few now expecting anyone other than the trio to win the title.
Sharapova has refused to get too far ahead of herself, dragging out the “one match at a time” cliche after each round, though she said after her demolition of Makarova that she was pleased she was staying mentally switched on during matches despite their one-sided nature.
“That’s always one of the toughest things, keeping that focus, especially when you have when you feel like you’re doing the right things and you have your opponent in the right position,” Sharapova said.
“You really have to follow through with what you’ve done and keep doing it (and) keeping your head in the right direction.”
The right direction is lifting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy for the second time and Sharapova came into the quarter-final brimming with confidence.
Not only had she not dropped a set, she had also not lost any of her previous five Australian Open quarter-final matches, with one of those victories against Makarova last year.
The 24-year-old Makarova was expected to be a tough opponent having already beaten 11th seed Marion Bartoli and fifth seed Angelique Kerber to make the quarter-finals and despite Sharapova’s rampage through the four previous rounds, she thought her 19th-seeded compatriot would be a challenge.
“She’s beaten quality players over the course of last week, and I know that she’s capable of playing really good, with deep hitting,” Sharapova said.
“Also a lefty, which is a bit tricky and I thought I handled that pretty good and was able to keep my focus all the way through the match.”
Sharapova, who had won her first two round matches 6-0 6-0, has bullied her opponents into submission with her powerful serve and booming groundstrokes.
Against Makarova, however, she experienced something almost alien to her - she had her serve broken for the second time. The previous break of serve was by Venus Williams in their third round clash.
As such, Makarova’s temerity to break in the fourth game of the match was duly punished as Sharapova rattled off the next four games to clinch the first set in 31 minutes, then win the opening two games of the second, which only highlighted her laser-sharp focus.
“If I do come into a situation where I feel like I have to pull through or I‘m not playing my best tennis or she’s up and I have to find a way to win, then that’s what you have on that given day,” Sharapova said.
”Do I want to be in that position? Absolutely not.
”If I start the match well, I want to follow through with that along the whole way and keep that motivation and the way that I‘m playing, doing the right things and keeping that focus. That’s the important thing.
”It’s not to think, ‘oh well, should I just give away a few games’?
“It’s not really a mentality of a winner, I think.” (Writing by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O‘Brien)