Serena Williams has flexed her Wimbledon authority by firing an early mind-games salvo ahead of her grudge semi-final with Maria Sharapova.
Williams claimed: “I love playing Maria”, to preview Thursday’s last-four meeting with Sharapova, a re-run of Wimbledon’s 2004 final, despite the duo’s long-running frostiness.
Top seed Williams outgunned Victoria Azarenka, then underlined her 16 consecutive triumphs over Sharapova by branding January’s Australian Open final victory over the Russian as “very entertaining”.
The 33-year-old damned Wimbledon’s fourth seed with feint praise to assert her 20-time major champion status, amid a reported feud that runs to 2013 and a fall-out over Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov.
“I love playing Maria, I think she brings out the best in me,” said Williams, who forced Azarenka into 3-6 6-2 6-3 quarter-final submission.
“I think I bring out the best in her.
“I thought we had a wonderful final in Australia.
“It was very entertaining. She played really well.”
However “well” Sharapova performed in that Australian Open showpiece, Williams took the title 6-3 7-6 (7/5).
That timely reminder starts an intimidation game aided by superstar rapper Drake taking a seat in his rumoured love interest Williams’ post quarter-final press conference.
Two years ago Williams appeared to brand Dimitrov “the guy with the black heart” after their relationship broke down.
Now the Bulgarian dates Wimbledon’s fourth seed Sharapova, and that axis keeps the relationship between the American and the Russian terse at best.
Sharapova edged out Coco Vandeweghe in three sets, then admitted it would prove “an incredible moment” to meet Williams on Centre Court, some 11 years after toppling the American for the 2004 crown.
Sharapova has not beaten Williams since that year – the clear subtext of Williams’ back-handed compliment about the Australian Open final.
“I don’t have anything to prove,” said Williams, still on course for the calendar grand slam.
“Now I’m just here to enjoy it. I think that’s actually making me play better, which is crazy.”
Belarus’ former world number one exited Wimbledon with a parting shot of her own – at the Centre Court crowd for laughing over her and Williams’ loud grunting.
“It’s so annoying because guys grunt,” said Azarenka.
“Both women on the court were giving everything, and they make noises.
“Is that a problem for tennis?”
Williams dipped a toe in controversy before departing for an ice bath.
The five-time Wimbledon champion backed Caroline Wozniacki branding the SW19 scheduling as sexist.
Denmark’s Wozniacki has slammed unequal chances for men and women to feature on show courts.
“We’re still fighting on that,” said Williams of scheduling differences between men and women.
“I don’t think it’s limited to Wimbledon.
“It’s a huge conversation that we have to have.”
After weighing in on Azarenka’s crowd frustrations, Williams then cut the criticism.
“I’m done with controversy, I can’t, I’m tired,” said Williams.
“I have to do an ice bath. If you have any other questions I’m cool, but I’m done with that.”