Can Maria Conquer Kim?

August 5, 2006 06:38 PM

Maria Sharapova hits a backhand against Patty Schnyder during their Semifinal match Saturday at the Acura Classic.© Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
CARLSBAD, Calif. (AP) -- Second-seeded Maria Sharapova used her strong serve to defeat Patty Schnyder 7-5, 6-4 on Saturday to advance to the finals of the Acura Classic.

Sharapova's dominance on her serve was also the key to her winning the second game of the second set, which lasted 24 points and took more than 15 minutes to complete.

"I think I served smart," said Sharapova, ranked No. 4. "That was probably the greatest thing about my serving. I was consistently smart. I mixed up it up good and mixed up the pace good."

Sharapova will meet top-seeded Kim Clijsters, who beat Czech teenager Nicole Vaidisova 6-2, 7-6 (0) in the other semifinal. Clijsters, ranked No. 2, has won 24 consecutive matches in North American summer hardcourt tournaments.

Sharapova has yet to beat Clijsters in four career matches. Sharapova reached her fourth final this season, but has won just once at Indian Wells in March.

Since losing here last year in the quarterfinals, Clijsters has won summer hardcourt events at Los Angeles, Toronto, the U.S. Open, and last week at the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, Calif.

Clijsters rolled through the first set as she returned nearly each of Vaidisova's shots and outhit her younger opponent. Clijsters broke Vaidisova's serve in the first game of the match and again in the fifth game for a 4-1 lead.

But after the 17-year-old Vaidisova twice lost her serve to start the second set and fall behind 3-0, she became the aggressor. She gained her first break of Clijsters' serve in the fourth game after missing on her first four break chances. After Vaidisova broke Clijsters in her next two service games, the score was tied at 4.

Each player held serve twice to force the tiebreaker and the seventh-seeded Vaidisova fell apart. She double-faulted on the first point of the tiebreaker, then missed a forehand return into the net before she committed four straight unforced forehand errors. The match ended on Vaidisova's backhand into the net.

Clijsters has beaten Vaidisova two straight weeks after a 7-5, 6-2 win in the semifinals last week at Stanford. Vaidisova, currently ranked 12th, will gain her first top-10 ranking at No. 9 when the new rankings come out next week.

The fifth-seeded Schnyder and Sharapova each held serve for most of the first set, although they did it in different fashions. Sharapova, one of the WTA Tour's better servers, allowed just six points on her serve in the first set. Schnyder had to struggle to hold her serve, but did so as the pair were on serve at 5-5.

That's when Sharapova converted the only break point of the first set. Sharapova hit a forehand winner off a short ball to take a 6-5 lead. She then served out the set.

"I didn't do too good at the beginning. She won her serve too easy," said the eighth-ranked Schnyder. "She has a huge serve. Each and every point she's like 100 percent concentrated and focused. She really never gives you a breath. Just a really complete player."

Sharapova, the 2004 Wimbledon champion, kept her momentum from the first set by breaking Schnyder's serve in the first game of the second set. Then came the long second game, with the Russian staving off five break points and featuring a total of nine deuces.

On three of Schnyder's break points, Sharapova's big serve caused Schnyder to hit weak service returns for easy points.

Sharapova took a 2-0 lead by winning that game, then jumped out to a 5-1 lead before Schnyder closed it at the end. Schnyder scored her only service break of the match to cut the lead to 5-3, then held serve before Sharapova won the match when Schnyder hit a backhand wide.

Schnyder, playing in her third straight semifinal, lost last week to Clijsters in the finals of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, Calif.