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Published: Friday, 7/1/2011

WIMBLEDON

After 7 years, Sharapova back in final

Recovers from slow start; to meet Kvitova for title

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Maria Sharapova's 7-year gap between Wimbledon finals is the longest in the Open era. Maria Sharapova's 7-year gap between Wimbledon finals is the longest in the Open era.
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WIMBLEDON, England -- So what if Maria Sharapova managed to win only two of the first 13 points of her Wimbledon semifinal Thursday, dropping the first three games?

So what if she bungled her serve so badly that she double-faulted 13 times?

All that mattered to Sharapova was that she roared -- well, shrieked -- her way back into the match, taking 12 of the last 16 games to beat wild-card entry Sabine Lisicki of Germany 6-4, 6-3 and return to the final at the All England Club for the first time since 2004, when she won the title at 17.

"It's been many years, but it's a really great feeling," Sharapova said. "Today wasn't my best match of the championships, so I was real happy to get through in two sets. But, yeah, it's pretty amazing to be back on that stage."

In Saturday's final, Sharapova will play No. 8 Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, who hit nine aces and dictated points throughout her 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 victory over No. 4 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.

Sharapova's seven-year gap between Wimbledon finals is the longest for a woman in the Open era, which began in 1968.

"I'm in a different stage in my career. I'm 24 years old. I have a lot of experience behind my back," said Sharapova, who hasn't lost a set during the tournament. "But I'm still playing tennis."

That wasn't always a given: Months after winning her third, and most recent, Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open, Sharapova was sidelined with a serious injury to her right shoulder. When rehab wasn't enough, she had surgery in October, 2008. It was an arduous road back, and only now has she returned to the top of the game.

"You're going to have certain doubts, I mean, when you go through something like that," the fifth-seeded Sharapova said, "knowing that not too many players have recovered fully."

Kvitova, who lost in last year's Wimbledon semifinals, is the first left-handed woman to reach a Grand Slam title match since Monica Seles at the 1998 French Open. She would be the first lefty to win the Wimbledon trophy since 1990, when Martina Navratilova -- who was born in Czechoslovakia and was a spectator at Centre Court Thursday -- earned her ninth title.

Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic returns a shot to Victoria Azarenka. She is the first left-handed woman in a major final since 1998. Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic returns a shot to Victoria Azarenka. She is the first left-handed woman in a major final since 1998.
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"There's been so few women lefties that were good," Navratilova said. "For Petra, I think the key's always been to minimize those streaks of bad play. She's very streaky."

There's little question who the favorite is Saturday: Sharapova will be playing in her fifth major final; the 21-year-old Kvitova in her first. Sharapova seeks her 24th career title; Kvitova her fifth.

"Experience is an incredible asset," Sharapova said, "because you feel like you've been through many different situations."

In their only previous meeting, Sharapova beat Kvitova in straight sets on an indoor hard court at Memphis last year.

Then again, here's what Kvitova's coach, David Kotyza, took away from that: "Petra knows how to play against her."

As for whether Kvitova might be intimidated against Sharapova, Kotyza said: "I don't think so. No. She doesn't care who she plays."

In the opening semifinal, Kvitova wasn't distracted one bit by Azarenka's shot-accompanying screeching -- which drew snickers from the crowd on the match's very first point -- or the fire alarm that droned on for a couple of minutes in the fifth game.

Punctuating nearly every point she won with a yelp, Kvitova showed why she was honored as the WTA newcomer of the year in 2010. Still, she acknowledged afterward that, as recently as two weeks ago, "I didn't think, like, that I could win" the Wimbledon title.

Azarenka begged to differ.

"She can beat anybody, any day, because right now she has really good game," Azarenka said. "She's really going for it."

Indeed, Kvitova took the initiative, accumulating a 40-9 edge in winners. Her serve helped her get through some important moments: She hit three aces in the last game of the first set, and she dug out of a 15-40 hole while serving in the final set's fifth game, ending it with another ace.

Sharapova was forced to tweak her service motion after her operation, and Thursday's match is only the latest evidence that there's still a problem. While losing in the French Open semifinals a month ago, she hit 10 double-faults, including on the final point. Against the 62nd-ranked Lisicki, Sharapova put in only 48 percent of her first serves.

"The first three games she played very well, and I did quite the opposite. She served better, and I was giving her way too many free points on my serve," Sharapova said. "And then I told myself to take it one point at a time and really focus. I felt like I just kind of got in my zone."



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