x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Maria Sharapova's seven-year Wimbledon wait

The Russian won the Wimbledon title in 2004 but has not been back in the final until Saturday.

Seven years after a surprise victory at Wimbledon at age 17, Maria Sharapova is back in the final, this time as a three-time winner in grand slams and the heavy favourite on Saturday.

Petra Kvitova is preparing for her first slam final. The 21-year-old Czech might be dreaming of a debut like that of her Russian rival, who overpowered the top-seeded Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4 in 2004 to establish herself as a precocious star of the women's game.

The seven-year gap between Wimbledon finals might surprise some, but it is not something that troubles Sharapova.

"You obviously hope that you can be in the final stages every single year, but I guess it's just not meant to happen," she said yesterday. This is the year I'm supposed to be back in the final. I don't know why. I'm not going to question it."

Since 2004, Sharapova has added the 2006 US Open and the 2008 Australian Open titles.

She also has recovered from shoulder surgery in October 2008 that took her off the singles court for nearly 10 months and necessitated a change in her service motion when she returned to action.

Her first slam final since the surgery is the sort of moment Sharapova visualised while nursing her shoulder back to health.

"I had time to reflect on my career and things that I've achieved," she said.

"But I think I was always looking towards the future more than anything than in the past because that's where I was trying to envision myself at some point, to be getting back out there."

Looking back to the 2004 final, Sharapova said she spent the day trying to recover from illness.

As she looked ahead to the biggest match of her career, Kvitova dismissed talk of nerves.

"No, I'm not nervous," she said. "I'm looking forward to tomorrow, for sure. I slept well. It's OK."

If Kvitova can hold her nerve, the final could come down to her serve. The left-handed Kvitova has hit 35 aces in her six matches so far and it was her serve that was a determining factor in her semi-final win over the fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka.

Sharapova managed to beat Sabine Lisicki despite 13 double faults and a first-serve percentage of 48.

Martina Navratilova, the last left-handed women's champion at Wimbledon, in 1990, said Kvitova "matches up well" against Sharapova.

"It's such a toss-up. It basically comes down to who serves better," Navratilova said. "Once the ball is in play, Sharapova has an edge with Petra. I think Petra will return better [than did Lisicki] and it will be easier for her to hold serve."

Kvitova has described the nine-time Wimbledon winner Navratilova as her idol.

"She's very sweet," Navratilova said. "It's funny because I haven't had that many players that said, 'You're my hero.' It's nice. I thought she was too young for that."

Kvitova had not won a match on grass before her run to the semifinals at the All England Club last year where she was beaten by Serena Williams.

Since then, she has won three WTA Tour titles and surged into the top 10.

She trained at the same club in the city of Prostejov as 2010 Wimbledon men's finalist Tomas Berdych. Martina Hingis, the 1997 women's champion, also practised there.

Kvitova said her parents are flying over from Prostejov to watch her attempt to become the first Czech woman to win Wimbledon since Jana Novotna in 1998.

Sharapova will again be supported by her fiance, the New Jersey Nets basketball player Sasha Vujacic, who has been at the championships throughout.

Seven years on from her 2004 victory, when she played like a carefree teenager, the 24-year-old Sharapova will go into the final with a far more nuanced perspective.

"I'm a few years older, more mature. I hope so at least," she said, smiling.

"You develop, not only as a player, but as a person as well.

"Obviously, a big part of my life is tennis, but at the end of the day I'm not going to be playing for my whole life.

"It's great to have someone that will be sharing my life with onwards. I want to explore life. There are many other things in life as well that I'd want to do."