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Sun 24 Feb 2008 01:04 AM

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Sharapova into Qatar Open final

Australian Open champion maintains unbeaten record with hard-hitting win over Radwanska.

Maria Sharapova maintained her unbeaten record in 2008 with a hard-hitting win over Agnieszka Radwanska which carried her to the final of the $2.5 million Qatar Open on Saturday.

The Australian Open champion beat the 18-year-old Pole, who has just reached the world's top 20 for the first time, 6-4, 6-3, a scoreline which also means Sharapova has still only dropped one set this year.

Sharapova will now face compatriot Vera Zvonareva, who ended the giant-killing run of China's Li Na, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the other semi-final.

The great improvement in Sharapova's serving shown in Melbourne - made possible by the recovery from the shoulder problem which blighted her tennis last year - was again in evidence, and was supplemented by a strident policy with her returning.

Sharapova took the ball early and forcefully, risking a few errors but creating constant pressure, a policy which particularly paid off during a crucial phase in the middle of the second set.

"It was a good opportunity for me to play someone who had beaten me," Sharapova said, referring to the fact that she had lost to Radwanska the last time they met, at the US Open in New York five months ago.

"Radwanska played well at the start of the match and I almost went 3-0 down," the fourth seed added.

"I had to play good tennis to get it back. It wasn't an easy match; it was quite tough out there, but I was able to do the job.

After regaining parity early on, Sharapova made a breakthrough in the seventh game, being particularly severe on any second serves, and converting the break point with a withering inside out forehand winner.

She then prevented an immediate break back from Radwanska, who at this stage was sometimes the more creative and dangerous player in the longer rallies, with some brilliant defending.

Sharapova was 30-40 down on her serve, and though not known as the quickest player about the court, scrambled the ball back three times to inducing a smashing error from Radwanska.

That helped her to 5-3 and Sharapova closed out the first set with her most impressive game, a service game to love, which included two fine first serves, setting up winners and an ace.

After exchanging breaks in the opening two games, the second set hinged on the fifth game, when Sharapova's threatening returns pressurized Radwanska into a double fault to go love-40 down.

When she saved two break points in the eighth game, it effectively ended Radwanska's resistance, though she had done enough to suggest she should be a top ten player of the not-too-distant future.

"I lost to Zvonareva the last time I played as well, so I don't want to lose to her again either," Sharapova said ominously.

However, Zvonareva looks to have recovered from the ankle injury which was bothering her recently and could be dangerous again.

Always a player displaying great talent, but sometimes of variable temperament, discovered the ability to impose herself on the match at two crucial moments.

First she broke back for two-all in the second set and took nine points in a row to change the character of a contest which the heavy-hitting player from Wuhan had dominated.

Then, after going a break down again in the final set, Zvonareva hit a hot streak at the finish, dropping only six points in the last four games.

Li, who had beaten three top 20 players in the previous three rounds, eventually began to lose some of her consistency and contributed to her own downfall with a rising error ratio.

She attributed her good form here to "her husband who has given her a credit card", a piece of humour which disguises what is almost certainly a great deal of work whilst off the circuit for half of 2007.

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