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Serena Williams cruises into Australian Open quarterfinals and will face Maria Sharapova

Serena Williams cruises into Australian Open quarterfinals and will face Maria Sharapova
Serena Williams defeated Margarita Gasparyan of Russia, 7-5, 7-5, during a fourth round match at the Australian Open on Jan. 24. (Mast Irham / EPA)

Six-time champion Serena Williams rolled into the quarterfinals of the Australian Open on Sunday with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Margarita Gasparyan of Russia in Rod Laver Arena.

Williams, the defending champion, needed only 55 minutes to complete the match under bright sunshine after the roof had been opened following morning rain. Williams lost her service in the opening game but quickly found her groove to set up a rematch of last year's final with Maria Sharapova, who defeated Belinda Bencic in the preceding match.

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Williams has beaten Sharapova in 18 of 20 matches and hasn't lost to Sharapova since 2004.

Margaret Court, the Australian great who won 24 Grand Slam singles titles and has a court named in her honor at Melbourne Park, was in the crowd watching Williams reach the quarterfinals of the season's first major for the 10th time.

The 34-year-old Williams was so close to a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2015, winning the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles before her upset semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci at the U.S. Open.

"Well, gosh, I didn't know she was here, I feel honored to be able to play in front of her," Williams said when told Court was in the stands, then looked up to the VIP area and added: "Thank you."

The fifth-seeded Sharapova's 7-5, 7-5 victory was not nearly as easy as Williams' win. She fired 21 aces and hit 58 winners but needed 2 hours 5 minutes before beating Bencic on her second match point, converting it with a successful challenge after her forehand was initially called long. The ball tracker showed it hitting the baseline.

Sharapova screamed in delight after the successful challenge, and Bencic stood for a while and had to ask the chair umpire if the match was over.

"This must be the first match I won on a challenge but it felt like a clean ball — I felt like it was on the line, I was really positive about it but I thought worst-case scenario we're back to deuce."

Sharapova, who won the title in 2008 and has lost three finals at Melbourne Park, said of the rematch with Williams, "I look forward to playing the best in the world and that's what she's proven in the last year."

The 18-year-old Bencic, playing in the fourth round of a major for only the third time, again found herself on the wrong end of an opponent's ace count. Last year, Bencic was on the receiving end of a WTA-record 27 aces from Sabine Lisicki.

Kei Nishikori was the first male player through to the quarterfinals, beating No. 9-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, in front of a partisan crowd filled with flag-waving Japanese fans.

The seventh-seeded Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open finalist, also reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open last year and in 2012.

Nishikori has had trouble with Tsonga's power game in the past, losing most recently to the Frenchman in the quarterfinals of the French Open last year.

But Tsonga lost his serve five times in the match and managed to break Nishikori only once.

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