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Sharapova continues climb

Venus Williams falls to the 17-year-old, who faces Kim Clijsters in Nasdaq final. Agassi, Federer meet in semis.

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published April 1, 2005


KEY BISCAYNE - Venus Williams is not the dominant force she used to be, but beating the player who not too long ago held a firm grip on No.1 still holds a certain degree of satisfaction.

Just ask Maria Sharapova.

After defeating Williams 6-4, 6-3 before an announced 10,299 at stadium court in the Nasdaq-100 Open semifinals Thursday, the third-ranked Russian star dropped to her knees for a Grand Slam-like celebration when her opponent missed long with a backhand on match point. The victory, another signature moment in her on-the-rise career, sends the 17-year-old into Saturday's final against another former No.1, Kim Clijsters.

"I thought I played really well," Sharapova said. "I was in control for most of the match."

In the men's draw, No.10 Andre Agassi and top-ranked Roger Federer advanced to face each other in today's semifinals. Agassi defeated fellow American Taylor Dent 7-5, 6-0, and Federer downed Tim Henman 6-4, 6-2. Spaniards David Ferrer and up-and-coming Rafael Nadal, an 18-year-old already ranked No.31, play in the other semifinal.

Despite the score, the Sharapova-Williams match wasn't short on drama. In the final game, which lasted 16 points, Sharapova fell behind 0-40 and fought off six break points before closing it out.

"I was really positive," Sharapova said. "Even when she started to try to fight back."

The difference? Mistakes.

Williams had 24 unforced errors to 12 for Sharapova.

"The first problem for me was just I was so tired today," Williams said. "I don't know why. I'm not usually tired. All in all it was just a match that was all about the errors I made."

In the previous round, Williams, ranked No.9, had ended a six-match winless streak against her sister, Serena. The Sharapova victory means a Williams sister won't win the event for the first time since 2000. During that span, Serena won three times (2002-04) and Venus once (2001).

Clijsters, who missed much of last year with injuries and is unseeded in this event, easily defeated No.2 Amelie Mauresmo 6-1, 6-0 to reach the final. She has won 13 straight matches.

Against the serve-and-volleying Dent, Agassi was his usual calm and cool self. He committed seven unforced errors, 11 fewer than Dent, and broke his opponent's powerful serve six times. Dent's temper also was a factor. After a call went against Dent late in the first set, he argued with the chair umpire, became visibly rattled and pretty much fell apart.

"It would have been hard not to notice that," Agassi said.

Agassi, who owns six Nasdaq titles, advanced to his 10th semifinal here. He's 61-12 in Key Biscayne, 10-0 in quarterfinal matches. Reaching another final, however, won't be easy. With his 72-minute clinic over the seventh-ranked Henman, Federer improved to 30-1 on the year, equaling the best start to a season since Ivan Lendl in 1986. Federer has 20 straight victories since falling to Marat Safin in the Australian Open semifinals and is 46-1 since the start of last year's U.S. Open, which he won.

"It was definitely one of my best matches of the week," Federer said. "Still, I have a feeling I could serve better, just to get a few more free points."

Federer aced Henman just twice but did not double fault and never had his serve broken.

Henman is the only current Top10 player with a winning record against Federer. He's 6-4.

"Every facet of his game is of such a high quality," Henman said. "It only takes your level to drop for a point or two points and that can be a break of serve and he just keeps rolling from there."

How does Agassi plan to combat this?

"Tune in (today) and see," he said.

U.S. FED CUP TEAM LOADED: Venus Williams will join Serena and top-ranked Lindsay Davenport on the U.S. Fed Cup team for its April 23-24 quarterfinal against Belgium at Delray Beach.

That trio, all ranked in the top10, hasn't played Fed Cup together since 1999, when the United States won the team event.

Completing the squad is Corina Morariu, who forms the world's No.2 doubles team with Davenport. They were the runners-up at the Australian Open this year.

The Williams sisters are another option in doubles for captain Zina Garrison. She said she'll wait until the week of the competition to decide on her lineup.

"This is the strongest Fed Cup team we've fielded in years," Garrison said.

Venus Williams is 10-1 in Fed Cup play. Serena is 6-0 and Davenport 28-2.

Information from Times wires was used in this report.