Maria Sharapova and Li Na are set to face off for a spot in the Australian Open championship match. Sharapova rolled past fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova in the quarterfinals while Li pulled off a minor upset over Agnieszka Radwanska.
The two have met 12 times before and Sharapova has won eight of them. That includes victories in all three of their matchups last season. The No. 2 seed will enter as the rightful favorite after a dominant run so far in the season's first major.
Let's analyze each player's biggest key for success in the Aussie Open semifinals.
Maria Sharapova: Prepare For Battle
To say Sharapova hasn't been tested so far would be an understatement. Her matches have been glorified practice sessions. The four-time Grand Slam title winner dropped just nine games—and no sets—en route to the Aussie Open semifinals.
She can't expect things to come that easy against Li. Players often enjoy facing an early challenge, as long as they survive it, because it prepares them for the pressure of the late rounds. The Russian star will enter cold in that respect.
Sharapova must arrive with the mindset that it's going to be a long, hard-fought match. If it turns out she overpowers Li like she's done to each of her first five opponents, so be it. She can't assume it will be as easy as those matches.
It's important to remember Sharapova has dealt with some issues on her serve. In an event where her closest set to date was 6-3, she hasn't been forced to step to the line with any type of pressure. She should be prepared for that to change in the semis.
Li Na: Be Aggressive
In order to upset Sharapova, Li must dictate the pace of the match. Sharapova has held that role too often in their previous meetings, which is why her record against Li is so good. By forcing Li out of her element, it's easy to take control.
The 2011 French Open champion must find a way to turn the tide in her favor. The best way to do that is by coming out as the aggressor and attacking Sharapova's serve, even if it leads to a high number of unforced errors.
Her match against Radwanska is a perfect example. Li sprayed 40 errors—nearly double her opponent's total—but still won in straight sets because she also tallied 32 winners. The game plan should remain the same despite Sharapova's terrific form.
Pay attention to where Li is playing in the first set. If she's hitting a lot of shots from the baseline, she should be in good shape. If she's playing several feet behind it, Sharapova is likely controlling the points and the match. Li can't let that happen.