PARIS (AP) — One victory Thursday finished Maria Sharapova’s climb back to the top of the tennis rankings.
With one more Saturday, she’ll be the French Open champion and complete a career Grand Slam.
Not a bad way to spend springtime in Paris.
Sharapova defeated Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-3 in the windblown semifinals at Roland Garros. The second-seeded Russian needs a victory over 21st-seeded Sara Errani, a 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 winner over No. 6 Samantha Stosur, to become the 10th woman to win all four major tournaments.
“I always dreamed of being on the final stage here and I finally have that opportunity,” Sharapova said. “And I’m more than excited.”
When she won match point on a second-serve ace, Sharapova raised her palms to the sky, looked up and smiled — one of the sport’s biggest stars letting the fans and photographers share a special moment.
Sharapova has long been the headliner at almost any tournament she enters, though this latest win will officially put her on the top line of the women’s rankings when the new list comes Monday. It’s a perch that may have felt unreachable three years ago, when the Russian was recovering from shoulder surgery and dropped as low as 126th.
But from that point, she has made a steady climb back. This year, she has won two tournaments and finished runner-up in three more, including the Australian Open. That, plus the performance at Roland Garros, has helped push her back to No. 1, the spot she first captured in 2005 and held for 17 non-consecutive weeks, the last on June 8, 2008.
“It’s pretty special,” Sharapova said. “A few years ago after my shoulder surgery, I don’t know if I had a ranking, but it was over 100. And I thought `Well, I did it one time. So maybe again, I can try to do it.”‘
Her match against fourth-seeded Kvitova, who defeated Sharapova in the Wimbledon final last year, wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but Kvitova struggled with the blustery wind more than her opponent did. And she couldn’t get a handle on Sharapova’s serve. The Russian placed 78 percent of her first serves in.
“It’s tough to return her,” Kvitova said. “She plays very fast. It’s a different game compared to matches before.”
Trailing 4-3 and 40-30 in the second set, Kvitova hit an aggressive return that the chair umpire ruled missed the baseline. A short argument ensued and after the changeover, Kvitova kept glancing at the spot where she thought the ball hit. She went from 30-love in that game to losing the last four points, and Sharapova’s last service game was academic — and punctuated with that ace on her second serve.
Next up is Errani, who played a terrible second set against Stosur but took advantage when the U.S. Open champion got a case of the nerves and started hitting balls five and 10 feet out in the final set.
“It’s a semifinal of a slam,” Stosur said. “Of course, you’re going to be nervous.”
When her win was complete, Errani toppled on her back onto the soft, red clay. She then looked up to a guest box, where there was an elated mix of smiles and tears.
“It’s incredible for me,” Errani said. “I didn’t expect it, and I’m here. So, I don’t know what to say.”
Stosur committed 48 unforced errors, including 21 in the final set. Errani simply chased and got the ball back, making only 21 unforced errors over the entire match.
Many of Errani’s serves spun in at the 70-80 mph range. She finished with no aces, compared to 11 for Stosur, and set aside the thought, at least for one day, that power players with power games are the only ones who win big matches at Grand Slam tournaments. The debate will be resumed Saturday when she plays Sharapova. Given the way the past two weeks have gone, there’s no counting out the Italian.
Entering Roland Garros, Errani was 0-28 against opponents in the top 10.
Now, she has back-to-back wins against No. 10 Angelique Kerber and No. 6 Stosur, along with victories over past French Open champions Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Which means that on the same day Sharapova officially vaults to No. 1, Errani will reach the top 10 for the first time.
“Maybe my problem always was that I couldn’t believe too much to win with the strong players,” she said. “But now I beat three in a row. I’m in the final in a Grand Slam. So I have to maybe try to think a bit different.”