French Open: Maria Sharapova forced to dig deep
Maria Sharapova will play first-timer Simona Halep in the French Open final tomorrow.
Sharapova reached the final at Roland Garros for the third successive year with a 4-6 7-5 6-2 victory over Eugenie Bouchard while Halep defeated Andrea Petkovic 6-2 7-6 (7-4).
Fourth seed Halep has been the highest-ranked player left in the tournament for some time but she had reached just one grand slam quarter-final before.
Now she is through to the final without dropping a set and will climb to world number three on Monday.
It has been an incredible year for both Halep and Petkovic.
Halep was ranked 57th and lost in the first round at Roland Garros 12 months ago while Petkovic was defeated in qualifying and considered quitting tennis as she tried to battle back from a series of injuries.
The German appeared to be the more nervous of the two and Halep won the first set in just 28 minutes, her brand of graceful, intelligent tennis too much for the wayward Petkovic.
She improved significantly in the second set but let an early break slip away and Halep was the stronger in the tie-break.
Sharapova, who won the title in 2012 before losing to Serena Williams 12 months ago, maintained her remarkable record in three-set matches, winning a 19th consecutive deciding set on clay.
"I don't feel that I played my best tennis today," she said.
"I felt my opponent played extremely well, exceptional tennis, and I didn't feel that I was playing my best. I fought, I scrambled, and I found a way to win. I'm happy and proud about that."
Bouchard, who was playing in her second straight grand slam semi-final, had lost comfortably to Sharapova in the second round last year and demonstrated again the huge strides she has made.
She possesses the same steely-eyed determination as Sharapova and her mental strength is remarkable for a 20-year-old.
The Canadian said after beating Angelique Kerber in the fourth round that she did not have a best friend in tennis, adding: "I don't think the tennis tour is the place to have friends. For me, it's all competition."
It was an answer that could well have been spoken by Sharapova so it was no surprise that this was not a match for the faint-hearted.
Meanwhile, Andy Murray has waited nearly three years for another chance to take on Rafael Nadal at a grand slam and he hopes this time he has the tools to beat him.
For a while it seemed Murray could not escape Nadal at the majors.
In 2011 – the only previous time the Scot has reached the semi-finals at the French Open – he played Nadal in three successive grand slam semi-finals and lost each time.
The US Open that year was their last match at a slam, while Murray's victory in Tokyo the following month had been their most recent meeting until they faced off in the quarter-finals in Rome three weeks ago.
Nadal won again, but there was plenty to encourage Murray, who has come out on top twice in their eight slam meetings.
Murray has always enjoyed facing his former junior rival and will relish what he described as one of the toughest challenges in tennis.
He said of the Rome meeting: "I definitely learned some things. It was quite clear in my head what was working and what wasn't.
"It's obviously different conditions here and a different court. When we played in Rome it was extremely cold. It was raining.
"So conditions change, which makes a match slightly different as well. But there are some things I learned in that match that hopefully I can use to my advantage here."
The other semi-final pits second seed Novak Djokovic against first-time semi-finalist Ernests Gulbis.