MELBOURNE - Maria Sharapova arrived on court with a most stylish racket bag but it is what she pulled from it which was fascinating. Imperious strokeplay, icy demeanour, high-pitched shriek. Well armed, she did not so much beat Canadian Eugenie Bouchard in their quarter-finals this Australian afternoon as school her. Think of it as a dismissal. An education in the art of match play. Sharapova won 6-3, 6-2 and no one dared ask her to twirl later.
Bouchard is the No. 7 seed and is 20; Sharapova, who seems to have been here forever, is the second seed and only 27. Both women are not without superfluous similarity. They are a sponsor's delight, they strike the ball as if it has personally offended them, they are attractive yet pretty ferocious, they both wish to hog the baseline, they both have a strong fan base. Bouchard has the Genie Army, Maria has the SharaFamily.
But most parallels end there. One is simply very good, the other is profoundly great. In the stands, Bouchard's army serenaded her with songs, but the sound she could not shut out was the grunt of effort from the other end. Sharapova gives everything to her game and gives nothing to her opponent. When she screamed "come on", even the air freezes in fright.
Raise your game. Lift your level. Elevate your standard. The further you go in tournaments, these self-evident truths follow. Easy to say, impressive to do, fascinating to watch. In her fifth match at this Open, Sharapova's first-serve percentage (64) was her highest all tournament; so was her percentage (84) of first-serve points won. She offered only two breakpoints yet not a single break.
Bouchard needed her best, but Sharapova was at her best. Her intensity was unwavering and Bouchard defined it well when she said: "I was under pressure all the time. I was on the backfoot."
Sharapova, in her seventh Australian Open semi-final, was grateful she wasn't going to get another phone call from her father as she did after her second-round match which she barely won.
What did dad say then?
"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 out there suffering for nothing.' He told me that I was working much harder than I had to. If I was maybe a little smarter, did a few things maybe a little bit differently, maybe it could have been easier."
She did not flinch from it. Instead, she said, she appreciated the advice. "I like real people and honesty. If you played a terrible match, you played a terrible match."
On Tuesday, she played like a real champion. With honest effort. And produced a magnificent match. Dad would be proud.