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Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Updated: September 6, 9:27 AM ET
Maria Sharapova reigns after rain

By Jane McManus

NEW YORK -- When rain chased Maria Sharapova from the tennis court Tuesday, she was down a precipitous 0-4 to Marion Bartoli. The rain settled in over Queens, and the players were sent back to their hotels. Sharapova had about 25 hours before play began again on Arthur Ashe Stadium court. She had to eat dinner 0-4, lay her head on the pillow that night 0-4, wake up in New York City, still down 0-4.

On Wednesday, four times she and Bartoli were instructed to start warming up before the clouds truly parted enough for play.

"Right when we were walking literally in the hall of the locker room, we went back because it started drizzling," Sharapova said. "I mean, I have done like 20 different types of warm-ups in the gym. I was so sick of it. I was like, let's just play tennis. So I was really happy that we got it in without another break. Another break means another warm-up. I can't handle it anymore."

Victoria Azarenka
Next up for Sharapova is No.1-ranked Victoria Azarenka, who may or may not be a friendly foe.

Fortunately for Sharapova, the moment play finally resumed was the moment she actually showed up to play.

Sharapova won the first two games and scrapped for every point in the 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win. It was the second time the rain saved her. She beat Nadia Petrova after being down a break when a rain delay affected her fourth-round match. When the dust settled, just five total points separated the No. 3 seed from No. 11 Bartoli, who was pleased with how she played, even if she didn't like the result.

"I thought it was a totally different match," Bartoli said. "The first time when we started, maybe Maria was a bit slower on her footwork. She wasn't serving that well. I felt like I was having a huge grip on the match, and coming out again today, I think she was really a different player. It was a very hard battle out there definitely."

With the win, Sharapova is 11-0 in three-set matches this year and has reached her first semifinal here since 2006 -- when she won her only U.S. Open title -- and is now the No. 2 player in the world.

And Friday she will face the No. 1, Victoria Azarenka.

Bartoli had never beaten Sharapova, but Sharapova doesn't hold that edge over Azarenka. The Belarusian beat Sharapova in the Australian Open final. It was where Azarenka won her first Grand Slam title.

"Last time we played I think was in Stuttgart where I beat her," Sharapova said. "But before that, she got me a couple of times. You know, I played a really good match in Germany against her. Obviously I [want] to take the things I did well out there but that was on clay; this is a different situation. So every match is new. She's been playing great tennis."

Slow-motion replays showed the two players bumped shoulders during a changeover during that match, sparking reports they might not be exactly friendly. At times, it's tempting to read between the lines when Sharapova talks about Azarenka.

"I think many people expected her to win a Grand Slam earlier than she did," Sharapova said. "I think her level, I mean, she always had a solid game. I mean, she was always mentally fragile -- felt like she would bang her racket and yell, and you kind of see that on the court. But I think with age and maturing that obviously you learn so much by playing matches."

When the two face off Friday, the USTA might want to issue noise-blocking headphones to the lower bowl. They are two of the loudest women on the WTA Tour. Azarenka's grunting has been compared to an owl for the warble at the end, while Sharapova has the kind of yell that could prompt a call to 911 from a concerned neighbor.

Sharapova can understand one thing, however, and that's that being No. 1 puts a target on your back. It's just that now Sharapova is the one who benefits.

"I mean, it's tough out there," Sharapova said. "It's extremely difficult to stay there because everybody -- they almost have the feeling of not having much to lose. They're not expected to win, so I think everything is kind of free and they're really going for it."

Just maybe not so much on the changeovers this time.