MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams is convinced that a loss makes her a better player. A really upsetting loss – like missing out on an oh-so-close calendar-year Grand Slam loss – may have her primed for an Australian Open quarterfinal against Maria Sharapova.
Williams and Sharapova have confirmed their quarterfinal date with straight sets on Sunday, ensuring a rematch between last year’s finalists at Melbourne Park.
Fifth-seeded Sharapova fired a career-high 21 aces and hit 58 winners in her 7-5, 7-5 win over Belinda Bencic in the first match of the day on Rod Laver Arena, converting her second match point with a successful challenge after her forehand was initially called long.
Six-time champion Williams followed it up with a 55-minute, 6-2, 6-1 win over Margarita Gasparyan.
Williams has won 18 of her 20 matches against Sharapova, including the last 17.
Williams won 26 matches in a row at the majors last season, capturing the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles and reaching the semifinals at the U.S. Open before a stunning loss to Roberta Vinci ended her run for the season slam.
That’s the driving factor here.
“For my whole career I have been motivated by losses. So that’s just been my thing,” she said. “So each time I take a loss, I feel like I get better.”
Asked if her unbeaten run against Sharapova gave her extra confidence, the 21-time major winner said it didn’t matter who she was playing.
“I just feel like I’m really confident in my game right now, not against her or against any other opponent,” in particular, Williams said. “I’m just really looking at me right now, and I feel like if I can just continue to play well, then it could be good.”
Margaret Court, the Australian great who won 24 Grand Slam singles titles and has a court named in her honor at Melbourne Park, was in the crowd watching Williams.
Under bright sunshine after the roof was opened following morning rain, Williams was broken in the opening game – her only point coming from an ace – but quickly found her groove and won 12 of the next 14.
“Well, gosh, I didn’t know she was here, I feel honored to be able to play in front of her,” Williams said when told Court was in the stands, then looked up to the VIP area and added: “Thank you.”
“Obviously 24 is close, but yet it’s so far away,” Williams said of Court’s career record.
Williams was keeping an eye on an earlier match, too, noting that Sharapova “had a really good win today.”
Sharapova won consecutive matches against Williams in 2004 at Wimbledon and the season-ending championships, but hasn’t won since. It’s a statistic she tries to block from her mind.
“It’s not like I think about what I can do worse. You’re always trying to improve,” she said. “I got myself into the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam. There is no reason I shouldn’t be looking to improve and to getting my game in a better position than any other previous round. It’s only going to be tougher, especially against Serena.
“I look forward to playing the best in the world and that’s what she’s proven in the last year.”
Sharapova, the 2008 champion and four-time finalist, had to play under an indoor match because play started while it was lightly raining, but the roof was open for Williams.
Kei Nishikori was the first male player through to the quarterfinals, beating No. 9-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in front of a partisan crowd filled with flag-waving Japanese fans.
The seventh-seeded Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open finalist, will next play the winner of the fourth-round match between five-time champion Novak Djokovic and No. 14-seeded Gilles Simon.