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Semi-fi­nal date with Berdych pits Mur­ray against man who knows him best

MARIA SHARA­POVA has a pretty good poker face when she wants to, but even the Rus­sian could not stop a smile creep­ing across her face after she reached the semi-fi­nals of the Aus­tralian Open yes­ter­day.

Not only did the Rus­sian play her best match of the fort­night to crush the chal­lenge of Eu­ge­nie Bouchard, 6-3, 6-2, but her path to the fi­nal was eased, in the­ory, after third seed Si­mona Halep was dumped out by 10th seed Eka­te­rina Makarova.

Given that she was star­ing de­feat in the face in round two when she saved two match points, Shara­pova per­haps feels like she’s play­ing with house money.

The near-de­feat by world No 150 Alexan­dra Panova prompted a phonecall with Shara­pova’s fa­ther, Yuri, and the world No 2 said the words hit home.

“In a nice ver­sion, it was like: ‘This is un­ac­cept­able’. He’s like: ‘It is much eas­ier just hav­ing a nor­mal home life. You should try it. I don’t know why you’re suf­fer­ing out there for noth­ing. Make it eas­ier for your­self.’

“He told me that I was work­ing much harder than I had to. If I was maybe a lit­tle bit smarter, did a few things maybe a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ently, maybe it could have been eas­ier.”

Cer­tainly against Bouchard, a semi­fi­nal­ist last year, Shara­pova played freely, dom­i­nat­ing from the base­line and con­stantly push­ing the Cana­dian back­wards.

It was a stark con­trast to their semi­fi­nal at last year’s French Open, when Shara­pova needed to come from a set down be­fore go­ing on to win the ti­tle, beat­ing Halep in the fi­nal.

Shara­pova must have ex­pected to see the Ro­ma­nian again in the semi-fi­nal in Mel­bourne but Halep was stunned 6-4, 6-0 by Makarova, who went one bet­ter than her run to the last eight 12 months ago.

Makarova con­tin­ues to go un­der the radar de­spite hav­ing also reached the last eight at Wim­ble­don and the US Open semi-fi­nals in 2014.

But though few peo­ple out­side of the ten­nis world know her, Shara­pova is well aware of the chal­lenge she presents.

“She’s go­ing to come into that match free and almost happy to be in that sit­u­a­tion, and that’s dan­ger­ous,” Shara­pova said.

“I haven’t faced a lefty in this tour­na­ment yet. But I’ll be look­ing out for that, work on a few things and be ready.

“We’ve prac­tised a lit­tle bit I think dur­ing the Fed Cup, but that was a few years ago. We played al­ready a few times. There’s no se­crets in each other’s games, that’s for sure.”

Makarova has never beaten Shara­pova, but hav­ing been bet­ter known as a dou­bles player for some time she’s found that handy knack of play­ing her best ten­nis in the grand slams.

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