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Serena peaking, Sharapova slumping

Matt Cronin / Special to

After crushing Maria Sharapova for the second time in a row, Serena Williams called herself an "Around The Way Girl," which is LL Cool J's term for high-level women who can break hearts and manipulate minds.

Serena is certainly pulling strings in Sharapova's head and, should she win the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami this week, she'll be once again breaking more hearts on the WTA Tour.

Serena appears to be peaking — again — in her career. And despite not playing any matches in between her glorious run to the Australian Open title in late January and when play began in Miami late last week, she doesn't appear to have missed a beat.

Serena's much-discussed conditioning is just fine, and she's absolutely dominating with her serve and return.

Unlike Sharapova, who almost inexplicably has hit the biggest three-month slump of her career, Serena's confident when going for the lines and doesn't back off when her opponent is going face to face with her.

Serena is living off first-strike tennis, and has become so accurate with quick-fisting returns to the corners and service blasts down the tee and out wide that it's become a Herculean task to engage her in long rallies — where she's more prone to errors.

Sharapova, who went down quickly 6-1, 6-1 in Miami on Tuesday, was stunned.

"She was controlling most of the points," the Russian said. "I did feel like I was late on most of the shots. She's a strong, powerful girl. You expect her to hit a big ball."

There are a lot of women who hit a big ball, but few who can take Sharapova out of her comfort zone so early. It's the 19-year-old who is used to doing the dictating, who rarely plays off her heels, who usually unleashes killer three-to-four ball combinations.

But like at the Australian Open, when Serena embarrassed Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in the final, Sharapova could never get off the block and looked like she knew she was going to lose. For a player who almost always digs her nails into matches, that's a frightening development, even if she's not yet 20 years old.

At this point, Sharapova's not at Serena's level so all her talk about being a great fighter goes for naught. It's tough to win a bout via TKO when you've already been knocked out in the first round. And that's what happened to Sharapova now on two occasions.

Sharapova's once-lethal serve has all but completely disappeared in the gust of a wayward, Kournikova-esque toss. Her ability to counterpunch against a zoning foe is also largely absent. She says it's not about confidence, but if she had a tremendous amount of self-belief, the reigning US Open champ sure would have won more than two games against Serena, who, by the way, dropped seven games to Lucie Safarova in the prior round.

"I'm not going to look at it as a confidence thing or not," Sharapova said. " I have to look at what I have to do to make it better, and how am I going to improve it so it gets bigger and better so it can help me win more tournaments."

Once again, Serena has a chance to win the calendar year Grand Slam, and given that she's only one of a few players on tour with enough all-around game to do damage on every surface, she has to be given more than outside shot.

She has won four majors in succession (from 2002-2003) but has never gone around the block in a year's time, a weightier task physically and mentally.

"I'm working towards getting to be the best," the Serena said. " It's an uphill battle."

Serena's best chance was in 2003, after she had won her fourth straight Slam at the Aussie Open, but she was stopped cold by Justine Henin in the French Open semifinals. She picked herself up and won Wimbledon again by toughing out another win against Venus, but then she wrecked her knee and didn't win another Slam for a year and half, until the '05 Aussie Open.

She injured herself again that spring and missed the French, so yet another opportunity at Steffi Graf-type glory was lost.

This season could be different — or not. Serena hasn't played the French Open for the past three years and, while she has the groundstrokes and speed to triumph on clay, she's not going to get a lot of easy wins on dirt and will have to show up in superior condition to pull off another title run.

"I feel like I'm running better," she said. "I'm moving a lot better. Still not on the level that I would like to move, I'm still trying to work my way up into the clay court season. You have to be extremely fit to play on the clay."

Eight-time Grand Slam champ Serena is scheduled to play just two tournaments prior to the French — Charleston and Rome — which should be enough, as long as she keeps on the practice court and in the gym during her off days. and somehow, some way, avoids injury, which she hasn't been able to do in nearly four years.

But first things first, and that means winning Miami, a tournament she has won three times but that still contains some significant land mines, including up-and-coming Czech teen Nicole Vaidisova in the quarterfinals, a possible date with Israeli teen Shahar Peer in the semifinals, who nearly knocked her out of the Australian Open, and maybe Henin in the final, who has bedeviled her.

Serena is locked in once again, and it never showed more than in her win over Safarova, when she was heckled by a fan making racist remarks. Serena complained to the umpire, asking that the fan be tossed, but she didn't lose her on-court focus.

Interestingly, the last time that Serena was harassed in this manner, at Indian Wells in 2001, she went on to win the title.

Serena is looking to dominate again and never sets the bar low for herself. In fact, she'd love to be called the Roger Federer of her sport. In many ways, she already is. As LL Cool J raps, 'she always knows what to say and do.'

"Federer has done an unbelievable job with not only being No. 1 but staying there and just being the best," she said. "He's so inspirational. That would be awesome if I could do that."

:worship: 2 Grand Slam (Mixed Doubles) Titles:worship:

(1) Wimbledon ('98), (1) US Open ('98) (both w/ Max Mirnyi)​
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