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Sharapova serves up soft words for V. Williams


WIMBLEDON, England - At 18, Maria Sharapova not only has learned to win a Grand Slam, but has mastered the fine art of pre-match commentary.

There were no edgy comments from her about Venus Williams before their Wimbledon semifinal today.

"She has a big game," said Sharapova. "She's a great fighter. So every time we play, we always have a really tough match. Just have to go out and battle it out and see who can win the fight."

With two more victories, Sharapova would become the first teenager to win back-to-back women's titles at Wimbledon since Maureen Connolly, then 17, started a three-year streak in 1952.

Sharapova was no overwhelming favorite when this tournament began, after sweating through three split-set matches in winning the Wimbledon warm-up event in Birmingham, England.

But everything has meshed for her through the first five rounds and she is now playing measurably better than when she won Wimbledon a year ago. One major reason is the improvement in her serve.

Through five rounds, she has been broken only once in 44 service games, and will take a run of 27 unbroken games into the semifinals.

If Roger Federer had 27 straight service games without a break, it would be considered noteworthy, but certainly not worth a trip to the record book.

In women's tennis, though the WTA doesn't keep that record, 27 in a row is phenomenal, and it has been accomplished not just because Sharapova has an average 103-mph first serve, but because she's in the low 90s with her second.

In addition, she backs up her serve with an aggressive first ground stroke.

Her serve will be tested by Williams, who went through a period of playing safer shots a few years ago, confident that when she got into the rallies, she would win the points.

But she has been much more aggressive in returning serve at Wimbledon this year, and that could influence Sharapova to push up the speed on both serves, as she did against 15-year-old Sesil Karatancheva in the second round, when she averaged 105 mph on her first serve and 94 on her second.

Like Sharapova, Williams was not throwing down any gauntlets. Her short, simple and deliberately vague assessment of Sharapova: "She definitely strikes the ball well, is a very determined player. Just a good player all-around."

That should be reassuring to Sharapova, the No. 2 player on the WTA Tour.

At 29, No. 1 Lindsay Davenport is less concerned about how her opponents take her pre-match remarks. Asked about Amelie Mauresmo's history of emotional meltdowns and whether they could come into play today, she replied, with a smile: "Well, I hope so. I hope that definitely comes into play."

But she was also generous: "I do believe in her and I do believe she is good enough and strong enough to one day come through these situations."

But she smiled again and added, "I hope it's not Thursday."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

On TV today

Lindsay Davenport vs. Amelie Mauresmo, 8 a.m., ESPN2

Venus Williams vs. Maria Sharapova, noon, chs 11, 4

Federer in semis. Page 3C

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