LONDON, (Reuters) – Maria Sharapova powered into the Wimbledon semi-finals with an awesome display every bit as spectacular as the thunder claps that rattled the All England Club yesterday.
The Russian fifth seed, the stand-out name in an unfamiliar looking last eight, roared to a 6-1 6-1 win over shell-shocked Dominika Cibulkova under Centre Court’s roof and now only wildcard Sabine Lisicki stands between Sharapova and her first final here since she won the tournament in 2004.
Lisicki continued her heart-warming run when she outlasted French livewire Marion Bartoli 6-4 6-7 6-1 to become the first German woman to reach the semi-finals since Steffi Graf in 1999.
Both matches were played under cover after Monday’s sticky heat gave way to storms.
Play was eventually possible on the roof-less Court One where Czech Petra Kvitova beat Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova 6-3 6-7 6-2 in just over two hours.
The fast-rising Kvitova, beaten by Serena Williams in last year’s semi-finals, will face either fourth seed Victoria Azarenka or Austrian outsider Tamira Paszek in the semis.
Sharapova became the clear favourite for the title after Monday’s fourth-round carnage when defending champion Serena Williams, her sister Venus and world number one Caroline Wozniacki all bowed out.
The broad-shouldered 24-year-old lived up to that billing with an unrelenting display of high-voltage tennis to demolish a player she towered above in stature and class in an hour.
“I haven’t been at this stage in Wimbledon in a few years, so this feels great,” former world number one Sharapova, who had not lasted beyond the quarter-finals at the grasscourt slam since 2006, told reporters.
“I would have loved for it not to have taken that long, but I’m not complaining. It’s the road that you sometimes have to take. It’s not always straight. There are a lot of zigzags.”
There were few zigzags against the overwhelmed Cibulkova, just straight line speed as Sharapova thumped 23 clean winners and many more unreturnable drives.
Even when 24th-ranked Cibulkova, who knocked out Wozniacki on Monday, earned a break point in the final game Sharapova simply cuffed a fizzing ace down the middle, a pinpoint shot that would have been appreciated by U.S. Open golf champion Rory McIlroy who watched from the Royal Box.
Impressive as it was, Sharapova’s match was never really a contest, unlike the humdinger that preceded it.
With torrential rain drumming loudly on the Centre Court roof Lisicki and 2007 runner-up Bartoli went toe-to-toe before Bartoli’s reserves of energy finally ran out.
“My legs were cramping, my mind was working but I ran out of gas and there’s nothing I could do,” the 26-year-old told, whose antics between points included frantic practice swings, sprinting on the spot and various skips, hops and slaps.
Lisicki missed five months in 2010 with an ankle injury, slumping to 179th in the rankings from a high of 22nd in 2009 when she also reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
The bubbly German, who beat French Open champion Li Na in the second round, also suffered a health scare in Roland Garros where she was carried off on a stretcher following a second- round defeat by Vera Zvonareva.
There was nothing wrong with her on Tuesday, though, as she pummelled the tenacious Bartoli with massive serves and pounding groundstrokes to reach her first grand slam semi-final despite an attack of nerves when she served for the match at 5-4 in the second set.
“It just feels amazing to be in the semi-finals, especially after all I went through,” Lisicki, who met Graf in Las Vegas last year, told reporters.
She took the opening set in 42 minutes and recovered from a break down in the second to lead 5-4 with her potent serve to come. A netted backhand cost her the first match point, she then agonisingly hit the tape with an attempted drop shot, one of the few occasions she failed with her favourite stroke.
A third match point went begging when she fired a forehand wide and a revved-up Bartoli seized her moment to break back before levelling the match in the tiebreak.
A sweat-streaked Bartoli was visibly suffering with fatigue in the decider, however, and Lisicki ruthlessly ran her around as she powered to victory.
Despite it being women’s quarter-final day all the early talk around the grounds was about the state of men’s defending champion Rafa Nadal’s left foot which he injured in his four-hour victory over Juan Martin del Potro on Monday.
The Spaniard had feared it could scupper his title defence but after an MRI scan he issued a statement saying there was no serious injury and he would be fit to face American Mardy Fish today.
The 25-year-old Nadal practised later yesterday and looked to be moving freely.