x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

French Open: Hits and misses from Maria Sharapova

Serena Williams and Sharapova make it through to final

Russiaís Maria Sharapova.
Russiaís Maria Sharapova.

Maria Sharapova turned her French Open semi-final into a game of Russian roulette, firing winners and ugly shots with equal measure as the champion bludgeoned her way past third-seeded Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 yesterday.

The Russian, who next meets world No 1 Serena Williams, served 12 aces and 11 double faults in a see-saw encounter against the Belarusian.

"I really had to play to the end today and I am extremely happy to be back in the final," Sharapova said.

"A 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."

Second-seeded Sharapova raced through the opening set in less than half an hour, spraying Court Philippe Chatrier with forehand winners.

Two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka hit back to take the second set, but lost her momentum after a 30-minute rain interruption, her opponent wrapping it up on her fifth match point after 2 hours, 10 minutes of baseline biffing and shrieking.

Four-time grand-slam champion Sharapova will need to make a dramatic improvement to become the first female to retain her title on the Paris clay since Belgium's Justine Henin in 2007.

The Russian thumped 42 winners, most of them with her devastating forehand, but a total of 39 unforced errors also meant the contest could have gone either way.

Sharapova, who lost the opening set 6-0 to Serbia's Jelena Jankovic in the quarter-finals, made two double faults as she dropped her serve in the first game against Azarenka.

The Belarusian was making her first appearance in the French Open semi-finals but she also needed time to settle.

By the time she realised that, Sharapova had won six games in a row in 28 minutes, allowing the third seed only seven points in the process.

Azarenka started to find better angles in the second set and opened a 40-15 lead in the third game before a couple of sharp first-service return winners reminded her she would have to fight for every point.

Dark clouds gathered overhead as Azarenka broke to go up 4-2, when Sharapova netted a backhand.

"I think the break kind of changed the momentum," she said. "I was just trying to make things happen too quick and started missing the ball."

A backhand winner gave Sharapova a break for 2-1, only for Azarenka to break back after yet another double fault at the end of a 10-minute game. Sharapova kept playing at a hectic pace and soon went 5-2 ahead. Azarenka saved four match points as she broke back for 5-3 and then held serve, but the title holder already had her teeth sunk deep into her prey.

She needed five match points to seal the victory. Serving for the victory for the second time, she held at love and finished with an ace.

"Those last few points are the toughest," Sharapova said. "I'm so happy that I regrouped and came out at 5-4 and served it out really well."

Sharapova will have to end a nine-year losing streak against Serena Williams if she is to take home a second successive French Open title.

Williams reached the French Open final for the first time since 2002 when she beat Sara Errani 6-0, 6-1 last night following the Russian’s win in the other semi-final.

With an obvious difference in power between the two, there was always a concern it could be a horribly one-sided match, and so it proved.

Williams has been in superb form, with this win representing her 30th in a row, and since a first-round defeat here last year, she has won 73 of 76 matches.

Errani could do nothing to counter the power at the other end of the court, with her serves dispatched back past her before she could move. The Italian won only eight points in the first set, and had managed just 10 when Williams moved 3-0 up in the second.

The American looked a little shaky in her quarter-final on Tuesday, fighting back from a break down in the decider to beat Svetlana Kuznetsova, but she was very determined on the centre court yesterday.

Errani finally got on the board in the fourth game of the second set, raising her arms aloft, but she had little to celebrate as Williams swiftly reeled off the next three games, dropping just 18 points and finishing with her fifth ace.

The 15-time grand slam champion won her only Roland Garros title 11 years ago, beating sister Venus in the final.

Sharapova beat Errani in the final last year to complete a career grand slam, but she faces a tougher test this time.

She is 2-13 against Williams, who has been on a mission after more than a decade of disappointment in Paris.