MARIA Sharapova turned yesterday’s French Open semi-final into a game of Russian roulette, firing winners and ugly shots in equal measure as she bludgeoned her way past third seed Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 2-6, 6-4.
The Russian defending champion, who will face world No 1 Serena Williams in the final, served 12 aces and 11 double faults in a see-saw encounter with the Belarussian.
Second seed Sharapova raced through the opening set in less than half an hour, spraying Court Philippe Chatrier with forehand winners. Double Australian Open champion Azarenka hit back to take the second set but lost her momentum after a 30-minute rain delay. Sharapova wrapped up the match on her fifth match point.
“I did the job and I’m happy from where I was in the beginning of the tournament to where I am today,” said Sharapova. “I just hope that I can improve for the next one.”
Having lost her last 12 matches against Serena Williams, the four-times grand slam champion will indeed 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 but also made a total of 39 unforced errors.
Azarenka who was in the French Open semi-finals for the first time, said: “I’m disappointed about the match and what happened out there but, overall, I have to give myself credit for going one step further. Even though I lost I still tried to come back and tried to make something happen.”
Azarenka needed time to settle and started to find better angles in the second set. She opened up 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 in the sky as Azarenka broke to go 4-2 up when Sharapova netted a backhand. The Russian then conceded two break points at 5-2 when the umpire called Azarenka’s shot in, although TV footage showed the ball was long.
Sharapova saved the first break point with an ace but double faulted on the second. The rain then intervened.
“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 in the third set 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 and finished the match off with an ace.