It wasn't pretty, but Sharapova, Kvitova advance

Maria Sharapova wasn't at peak form in her Wednesday quarterfinal match. Petra Kvitova can definitely say the same about her frustrating performance.

But both women had enough experience and power game to overcome their underdog opponents to advance to Thursday's Australian Open semifinals. Fourth-seeded Sharapova won 6-2, 6-3 over the inconsistent Ekaterina Makarova, while second-seeded Kvitova posted a 6-4, 6-4 victory against the diminutive, but fantastically pesky Sara Errani.

Sharapova will face Kvitova in one half of the semifinals, while No. 11 Kim Clijsters takes on No. 3 Victoria Azarenka in the other. Sharapova, Azarenka and Kvitova are competing for the world No. 1 ranking, which is now in play because Clijsters defeated top seed Caroline Wozniacki in another quarterfinal match Tuesday.

Kvitova was the most vulnerable favorite in the Wednesday's quarterfinals, struggling to find the right range for her aggressive ground strokes and rhythm against Errani. It was an interesting twist to the match, which had Errani looking wide-eyed and nervous before play started in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. The advantages seemed to lie with Kvitova; she is a Grand Slam champion (Wimbledon in 2011) and, at 6-feet tall, towers over the 5-foot-5 Errani.

"I expected tough … I did not expect an easy match," Kvitova said after the match.

And she did not get one. Kvitova's erratic play helped Errani manage her nerves and gain courage on the Rod Laver Arena court. The women traded service breaks to start the match, with Errani already giving signs of her willingness to chase every ball down.

Kvitova went up 4-2, despite having 16 unforced errors to 13 winners; Errani was making her work a bit harder for every point, and that seemed to bug Kvitova as the match developed. The errors continued, and soon Errani cut the lead to 5-4. Kvitova hung on to win the set 6-4, but looked far from being in command.

Errani mounted more resistance in the second set, and started hitting out on Kvitova's serve. Kvitova showed some significant focus issues (hitting her groundstrokes wide and long, and looking lost at times) and also revealed some anger (giving her racket a good slam to the ground after missing key shots), a contrast from her demeanor in previous rounds.

Errani, ranked 48th in the world, was becoming that pesky bee that keeps buzzing, threatening to sting and refusing to be swatted away. She went up 4-1, producing another good Kvitova racket slam.

Things turned around quickly, though, as Kvitova seemed to remember she was the player with the overwhelming power and higher ranking. She started hitting out with more precision, something she will definitely need to do against Sharapova, and besting Errani in long rallies. The 4-1 lead soon melted, and Kvitova took the second set and the match. She seemed tired and relieved, realizing she did not put in a strong enough effort to make her case for the No. 1 ranking.

Sharapova's efforts against Makarova were a bit more solid, with fewer patches of self-doubt and dodgy groundstrokes. But like Kvitova, Sharapova had to deal with an opponent who threw a lot against the wall to play defense. A lot of squash shots, last-gasp stabs for lobs and other desperate defensive maneuvers came from Makarova.

Sharapova's serve, which has been an acute liability at times, was nicely dialed in with 71 percent of first points won. Makarova, a lefty, cannot say the same for her serve, which at one point in the match was coming back harder on Sharapova's return than her second offering. Yes, that's right: Sharapova's returns were clocked at 79 mph and Makarova's ineffective, puff-ball second serve floated in at 73 mph. Sharapova punished Makarova for it, something Serena Williams was unable to do in her fourth-round loss to the 56th-ranked Russian.

While Sharapova never really looked comfortable during the match (she committed 32 unforced errors compared to 26 winners), she was hitting out and serving well, and was usually the one dictating play. Makarova simply lacked the firepower to push Sharapova around. And while Makarova would find a way to take advantage of Sharapova misfires by keeping the ball in play and forcing Sharapova to move in, Sharapova was never down in the match. She continued to pound away until the win was at hand.

Both semifinal matchups will be interesting, as four of the hardest hitters in the game will take the court. And the No. 1 ranking dangling in the wings adds some extra spice.

Kvitova's mental focus and emotional strength will be tested by 2008 Australian Open champ Sharapova, who is normally a very cool customer on the court. Sharapova is quite methodical, from her in-between point routine of staring at her racket and picking her fingers through the strings to her comedically mocked (looking at you, Novak Djokovic) serving rituals. Kvitova doesn't seem to have any similar conventions; she is going to need to tap into the mindset that helped her beat Sharapova last summer 6-3, 6-4 to take Wimbledon.

The Azarenka-Clijsters semifinal will also be a test of mental and emotional strength. Clijsters, who injured her left ankle in the fourth round, will need to show she's able to run and take the punishment of what could be a long match. Azarenka (and Clijsters to a lesser degree) will need to stay aggressive and not give in to mental lapses.

The four best players are truly left in this tournament. It's going to be a slugfest to the end, which is exactly the way it should be at a Grand Slam.

Let the topspin groundstrokes begin.

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