By Pritha Sarkar
PARIS (Reuters) - Sparks will be flying and the grunt-o-metre will be working overtime when French Open holder Maria Sharapova comes face-to-face with Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in the Roland Garros semi-finals on Thursday.
While a clash between tennis' two loudest wailers is likely to increase sales of earplugs around the Bois de Boulogne area over the next few hours, the 13th match-up between the two will also be under close scrutiny for reasons other than the noise level it produces.
The last time they met on clay, in Stuttgart just over a year ago, the players bumped shoulders during a changeover and neither woman attempted to apologize for the collision.
To make matters worse, at the end of that match Sharapova also had a dig at Azarenka's habit of taking medical timeouts when the going gets tough - an act that blew up in the Belarussian's face during this year's Australian Open.
In January, Azarenka was accused of gamesmanship after taking a 10-minute time out immediately after blowing five match points in her semi-final against Sloane Stevens.
Should she try that stunt again, Sharapova is unlikely to be as forgiving as the inexperienced 20-year-old American.
"We have played each other so many times there are really no secrets between each other in terms of our game styles and what we do well and not," Sharapova, who trails Azarenka 5-7 in their meetings, said looking ahead to the semi-final.
Azarenka, who employs the same bish-bash baseline tactics as Sharapova, concurred: "We are kind of similar and kind of different in the same way. It's going to be definitely a battle."
In Thursday's other semi-final, 2012 runner-up Sara Errani faces a tall order as she tries to narrow a 0-5 record against woman-of-the-moment Serena Williams.
Williams, whose collection of 15 majors includes only one Suzanne Lenglen Cup, has been an unstoppable force this year, winning 29 straight matches.
But after being left rather hot and bothered during a three-set win over former French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarter-finals, clay-loving Errani knows that if she is to chalk up that first win over Williams, there is no better surface to do it on than red dirt.
"Playing Serena, it's for sure very difficult because she's very strong," the diminutive Errani said.
"Physically she's an incredible athlete, so is not easy to play against her ... because she has a lot of power.
"So it will be tough, but maybe on clay is a bit better than any other surface."
William added: "You've got to appreciate how consistent she is. We had a pretty tough match in Madrid (recently).
"She's so serious. I can be ready for that."
(Editing by Alison Wildey)