PARIS — Might be easier said than done. Still, Maria Sharapova offered a tidy aphorism to sum up the formula that’s carried her to a third consecutive French Open final.
“It’s not how you finish a first set,” Sharapova said, “it’s how you finish the last set.”
Right now, no one is a better closer than she is on clay. Nearing a second championship at Roland Garros, and fifth Grand Slam trophy overall, Sharapova gritted her way to yet another comeback victory, beating 18th-seeded Eugenie Bouchard of Canada 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 in the semifinals Thursday.
“If some things are not working out, I don’t just want to quit in the middle. Because when you lose the first set or a few games or you’re down a break, that’s not the end of the match,” Sharapova said. “That’s the type of philosophy that I play with.”
She famously described herself years ago as feeling like a “cow on ice” on clay, but Sharapova now has won her past 19 matches that went to three sets on the demanding surface.
In Saturday’s final, the No. 7-seeded Sharapova will face No. 4 Simona Halep, a 22-year-old Romanian who never before had been past the quarterfinals at a major. Halep turned in a much more straightforward victory than Sharapova, eliminating No. 28 Andrea Petkovic of Germany 6-2, 7-6 (4).
Sharapova took a more difficult route to her ninth Grand Slam final.
In the fourth round against 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur, Sharapova trailed 6-3, 4-3, then won the last nine games.
In the quarterfinals against 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza, the woman who stunned Serena Williams last week, Sharapova trailed 6-1, 5-4, then won nine of the last 10 games.
That pattern continued against another 20-year-old, Bouchard. After dropping the first set, then standing two games from defeat at 5-all in the second, Sharapova won eight of the last 10 games.
She did it by playing aggressively in crunch time, risking more but also coming through more. After Bouchard’s ability to take the ball early helped her build a 13-8 edge in winners in the first set, Sharapova had a 25-16 edge in that category over the last two, celebrating most by shaking her left fist and crying, “Come on!”
“She kind of elevated her game a little bit,” said Bouchard, who had been 9-0 in Grand Slam matches when winning the opening set.
The 27-year-old Sharapova already owns a career Grand Slam, with titles at Wimbledon in 2004, the U.S. Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008, and the French Open two years ago. And for someone who used to have a hard time on clay, she is 53-4 with six titles on it since the start of 2012; three of those losses came against Williams, including in the 2013 French Open final.
“Sharapova does a good job of trying to stay in the moment,” Saviano said. “She’s got a lot of experience and a lot of fight. And she’s been around a long time.”