WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Maria Sharapova’s coach called it “a statement.”
For exactly one hour of excellence, Sharapova played — and sounded — exactly the way she did when she was a teenager, when it seemed nothing could stop her.
Those powerful-as-ever groundstrokes cut through the grass, landing right where she wanted. Those solid-as-ever service returns flummoxed her overmatched opponent. And those loud-as-ever shrieks bounced around Centre Court, its retractable roof shut to keep out the rain.
Simply put, Sharapova dominated 24th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 6-1, 6-1 Tuesday to reach the Wimbledon semifinals for the first time since 2006 — back in the days before she needed surgery to repair her right shoulder and dealt with doubts about the future of her career.
“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. A lot of time, you feel like it’s a dead end,” said Sharapova, who won her first Grand Slam title at age 17 at Wimbledon in 2004.
“I’ve worked really hard to get in this stage, but I’m not saying this is where I want to end,” she added. “I want to keep going.”
A day after the Williams sisters and No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki were sent home, the three women responsible for those upsets all lost:
— Cibulkova, who beat Wozniacki, held serve to open her match against Sharapova, then dropped the next eight games in a row;
— No. 9 Marion Bartoli, who beat Serena, faded down the stretch and was defeated 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-1 by wild-card entry Sabine Lisicki, the first German woman to reach Wimbledon’s semifinals since Steffi Graf in 1999;
— No. 32 Tsvetana Pironkova, who beat Venus, was eliminated 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2 by No. 8 Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, a semifinalist for the second consecutive year.
On Thursday, Sharapova will meet Lisicki, and Kvitova will face No. 4 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who got to her first Grand Slam semifinal with a 6-3, 6-1 victory over unseeded Tamira Paszek of Austria in the day’s last match.
“Looking at the rankings, everybody says, ‘You should have been already in the semifinals,’” said Azarenka, who moved to the United States when she was 12 and now lives part of the year in Arizona. “It was a great win for me.”
Her quarterfinal was suspended because of rain after one game outdoors on Court 1; they eventually were moved indoors at Centre Court.
“I’m glad we managed to play today,” said Azarenka, whose highlight was a full-sprint forehand that curled around the net post and landed in for a winner. “Thank God for the roof again. It’s just amazing.”
A heavy storm during the Lisicki-Bartoli quarterfinal violently pelted the roof, drowning out the normal noises of tennis, including rackets hitting balls, and line judges’ calls. During the second game, one particularly loud thunderclap startled Lisicki as she was about to serve. She flinched and stepped off the baseline, then smiled sheepishly.
“Yeah,” Lisicki said, “that was a little bit different.”
Sharapova was Tuesday’s only participant with a Grand Slam title already on her resume. She has three, part of a quick rise to the top of tennis: ranked No. 1 at 18; 2006 U.S. Open champion at 19; 2008 Australian Open champion at 20.
But her shoulder operation in October 2008 not only kept her away from the tour for several months, it also forced her to tinker with her service motion and made her question when she’d again play as well as she once had.
Sharapova went more than three years between Grand Slam semifinals, until getting that far at the French Open earlier this month. Now she wants another major title.
“It’s great, the fact that I’ve had the experience of being in those stages. But I haven’t been for a while, so it’s a nice and refreshing feeling to have,” Sharapova said. “I’ve put a lot of work in.”
The first game Tuesday was the only time Cibulkova held serve; Sharapova broke her six times.
Hitting deep, flat forehands and backhands, Sharapova finished with a 23-3 edge in winners, marking most with a high-pitched shriek. She limited herself to 10 unforced errors, one fewer than Cibulkova, who beat Sharapova in the 2009 French Open quarterfinals.
All in all, according to Sharapova’s coach, Thomas Hogstedt, “It was a statement.”
“It’s been, I think, a struggle for the last few years,” Hogstedt said, “and step-by-step, she has been working hard to come back. ... It’s been a process. I don’t think she believed this (would happen) a half-year ago.”
When her victory over Cibulkova ended, 60 minutes after it began, Sharapova raised both arms and yelled, “Come on!” Leaving the court, Sharapova pulled out a pink pen, ready to offer the autographs being requested by fans in front-row seats.
Clearly, she’s done this all before.
Given what she went through the past few years, a Wimbledon championship now would be more gratifying than past accomplishments.
“Absolutely,” Sharapova said, “it would mean more to me.”
Her next opponent, the 62nd-ranked Lisicki, also has rediscovered her game recently.
Lisicki missed seven months last year because of a left ankle injury — “I had to start to learn how to walk again,” she says — and dropped out of the top 200.
But her movement is fine now, and her big serve is as good as ever. Lisicki reached 124 mph, the highest speed for a woman this season, while knocking off French Open champion Li Na in the second round last week. She hit nine aces against Bartoli.
There’s more to Lisicki than that, though. She produced a total of 52 winners, 40 more than Bartoli, and won 13 points with the help of delicate drop shots.
“I’m so thankful to be out there on the court again that I’m enjoying every minute of it,” said Lisicki, 11-0 on grass courts in 2011.
There was only one, brief lapse, although it nearly changed the outcome. Lisicki held three match points while serving for the victory at 5-4 in the second set — and she made mistakes on all three. Eventually, she double-faulted to get broken, and when 2007 Wimbledon runner-up Bartoli won the tiebreaker with a drop shot of her own, they were tied at a set apiece.
“I started to get tentative,” Lisicki acknowledged.
Bartoli, though, was spent, and Lisicki pulled away in the third set.
“All of a sudden,” Bartoli said, “my whole body just shut down.”
At 26, Bartoli was the oldest quarterfinalist.
At 21, Lisicki thinks she’s more mature than when she lost in three sets to Dinara Safina in the 2009 Wimbledon quarterfinals.
“I’m more experienced and calmer. ... Two years ago, it was different. I was more nervous. I couldn’t sleep so good,” Lisicki said. “But now it’s different. Also, after the injury, it’s so nice to be back. I know how fast it can be gone.”
So does Sharapova.