PARIS: Maria Sharapova survived a gruelling test to reach the French Open final for the second straight year on Thursday with a 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 defeat of Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka. In a disjointed match opposing two of the biggest hitters in women’s tennis, the defending champion opened the semi-final in style, then lost her way for a set and finally, on the back of a brief rain delay, resumed control.
Azarenka, bidding to become the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win the Australian and French Opens in the same year, can count herself unlucky to have seen her momentum halted by the rain, but Sharapova was marginally the better player.
The second seed will now play either top seed Serena Williams or Sara Errani of Italy, who she beat in last year’s final in Saturday’s championship match. “I really had to play to the end today and I am extremely happy to be back in the final,” said Sharapova. “(The rain delay) gave me a little bit of time to think of what I did well in the first set and try to get that back again for the third.”
Azarenka agreed that the rain delay had not helped her cause. “I think the break kind of changed the momentum, for sure,” she said. “When we got back out I kind of didn’t start the same way I was playing in the second set. “I was just trying to make things happen too quick and started missing the ball. “You know, it was a little bit unfortunate and inconsistent in that particular moment.”
As she did against Jelena Jankovic in the quarter-finals, Sharapova got off to a miserable start, two double faults leading to a dropped serve in the first game.
But, unlike in her match against the Serb, the Russian quickly regrouped and rattled off four games in a row, getting the better of Azarenka in a bruising sequence of baseline exchanges.
The Australian Open champion looked perplexed and tried switching things up with a couple of dashes to the net, but on each occasion Sharapova belted a passing shot past her with ease.
Sharapova’s own serve was in good working order, the opening game apart, and she duly wrapped up the set 6-1 after just 28 minutes with an ace out wide.
Azarenka stopped the rot by holding serve to open the second set and, with a foothold, in the match she started to apply added pressure on the Sharapova serve.
That paid dividends in the sixth game when some fine attacking play from the Belarusian brought up break point and drew a double fault from the defending champion.
Azarenka broke again to take the second set 6-2, but her momentum was halted by a brief rain shower as she prepared to serve at the start of the decider.
The players were off for 35 minutes and neither appeared to benefit from the break as they traded a series of unforced errors on the resumption.
But, as in the first set, it was Sharapova who was the first to fully deploy her firepower, blasting an array of big hits at her opponent to break serve and lead 2-1.
Three double faults meant she handed the break back, but she promptly broke Azarenka again and then moved out into a 5-2 lead.
There was one further scare for Sharapova as she squandered four match points on her own serve, but two games later she steadied her nerves to finish off the job and reach the eighth Grand Slam final of her career.