Australian Open: Williams powers past Sharapova for 19th grand slam title

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AUSTRALIA — She may have been ill but that didn’t stop Serena Williams from claiming a 19th grand slam title Saturday.

The world No. 1 beat second-ranked Maria Sharapova 6-3 7-6 (5) in the Australian Open final to move into sole possession of second place in grand slams won in the Open Era behind Steffi Graf’s 22.

And on this form, matching Graf — or surpassing the German — shouldn’t be discounted even if Williams turns 34 in September.

“I would love to get to 22,” Williams told reporters. “But I have to get to 20 first and then I have to get to 21. There’s so many wonderful young players coming up, so it will be a very big task.”

The American defeated her Russian rival for the 16th straight time, although Sharapova ensured it was a gripping contest from start to finish.

Indeed the finale between two of the most recognizable athletes in the world produced some riveting rallies, which hasn’t always been the case when they’ve played due to Williams’ superiority.

“It’s frustrating to be the one going home with the small trophy,” Sharapova told reporters. “But I do love the battle.

“I love high-quality tennis. I love being part of it. It’s a lot better than watching it on TV.”

A gutsy Sharapova saved match points in two different games with punishing forehands, both players took turns uttering shouts of “come on” — Williams was penalized in the second set for yelling out in celebration when a point wasn’t over — and despite not being fully fit, Williams covered the court with aplomb.

A 12-minute rain delay in the first set — during which Williams vomited off court — forced organizers to close the roof on Rod Laver Arena and with conditions subsequently perfect for serving, it boosted Williams’ already potent delivery.

“I also started serving better in the second set because I knew if I wasn’t having my ground strokes where I wanted them to be, I knew I could serve it out,” Williams said.

Fifteen of her 18 aces, including one to wrap up the nearly two-hour contest, came in the second.

“When the games on her serve were 30-all, 40-30 or 15-30 a few times, she came up with really great serves,” Sharapova said. “There’s a few, just very limited amount of players that serve in that speed range as she does consistently.

“She finds the corners extremely well.”

Williams, who suffered from a fever and cough all this week, set the tone by breaking in the first game. She took control of the first by winning six straight points following the rain delay to build a 5-2 advantage.

But Sharapova, one of the game’s best competitors, didn’t melt in the second set.

She matched and even surpassed Williams from the baseline.

Sharapova saved one match point trailing 5-4 and the other at 4-6 in the tiebreak after saving two match points in the second round.

Another escape act wasn’t on the cards, however.

With Williams finally holding match point on her own serve, she thought she hit an ace out wide. A let was called.

No matter. She reloaded and hit an almost identical serve to see off Sharapova.

The pair haven’t always gotten along — Sharapova’s current boyfriend, men’s pro Grigor Dimitrov, is believed to have formerly dated Williams — but a warm handshake ensued.

Williams maintained her record of never losing past the quarterfinals in Melbourne, improving to 12-0.

Besides suffering another defeat to Williams, Sharapova failed in her bid for a sixth major and first outside Roland Garros in seven years.

“I haven’t beaten her in a really long time but I love every time I step on the court to play against her because she’s been the best and as a tennis player you want to play against the best,” Sharapova said.

“I was almost down and out in the second round and I feel like I gave myself a second life in this tournament and gave myself an opportunity. It wasn’t quite enough today but I’m proud of my effort and couple of weeks here.”

In Sunday’s men’s final, top-seed Novak Djokovic faces sixth-seed Andy Murray.

Like Williams, four-time winner Djokovic has never been beaten at Melbourne Park in a semifinal or final.