- French Open, Day 12
Sharapova digs deepest to move on to final
Sharapova, looking to defend the title she won 12 months ago, started brightly in the semi-final contest on Court Philippe Chatrier but was soon pegged back - as Azarenka set up a decisive third set with some imperious hitting.
But, after a brief rain delay, it was the Russian who found the winning recipe - breaking her opponent three times in succession to secure an eventual 6-1 2-6 6-4 triumph.
"I'm extremely happy to be back in the final," Sharapova said afterwards. "I had to dig deep today.
"This is an extremely special tournament for me as the defending champion. I'm happy I could serve it out like I did."
The match did not start well for Sharapova, as Azarenka won the toss and astutely chose to face serve first. Sharapova has had a tendency to start matches slowly - she was blown away by Jelena Jankovic, 6-0, in the opening set of their quarter-final on Wednesday - and so it proved again, the Russian being broken to love to get off to the worst possible start.
Her disastrous first set against Jankovic would not be repeated, however, as Sharapova immediately struck back - breaking Azarenka with a minimum of fuss as her powerful groundstrokes were exhibited for the first time in the contest.
Indeed, it was the Belarusian who actually struggled to get into the contest - losing the next five games in succession as she found herself a set down in just shy of 30 minutes.
A key part of Azarenka's first set problems came from her low first service percentage, as Sharapova - who produced some meaty returns even on first serves - feasted on weak second deliveries time after time. That problem continued to start the second set but Azarenka did a better job of compensating, surviving a real scare at 1-1 as the opening five games of the stanza went with serve.
Then came an opportunity for Azarenka, looking to reach her first Roland Garros final, to show how dangerous she can be when on the attack. A couple of unforced errors from Sharapova moved the score to 30-30 on the Russian's serve, before Azarenka ripped an inside-out forehand down the line to set up a break point opportunity.
And it was one she would take, Sharapova getting her footwork all wrong as a return got big on her quickly - giving Azarenka a crucial the advantage.
The world No. 3 duly held her next service game to give herself a greater level of comfort at 5-2. Then in Sharapova's next service game she levelled up the match, Sharapova becoming frustrated and distracted at an incorrect line call at 15-30, with that decision effectively ending the set as Azarenka moved into the ascendancy.
The final games of the second set were affected, briefly, by a burst of rain - but at the conclusion of the stanza the heavens truly opened. Sharapova left for a comfort break and, as she did, a heavy shower arrived - forcing a brief suspension of play that perhaps allowed both players to gather their thoughts.
The two players returned to court after a near-40 minute wait, and it was Sharapova who started the brighter - forcing an immediate break point after exhibiting some pinpoint forehands. But a wayward backhand saw that opening spurned, and Azarenka capitalised to escape with a valuable hold.
That put the pressure on Sharapova, who had been broken in her last two service games. Azarenka created a 15-30 opening but her opponent did not crumble; persisting with the powerful groundstrokes until Azarenka could find no response.
It appeared to be a recipe for success, and so it proved in the next. Azarenka fought back from a 0-30 deficit but then Sharapova really turned the screw, creating her first break opportunity of the set. And it was one she would take, moving Azarenka around the baseline with some pinpoint forehands before whipping a backhand across court to clinch the break.
Consolidating that break would prove harder than hoped. Struggles with her first serve enabled Azarenka to create a solitary break point, but an ace solved that problem. Another opening was created but that too was fended off - this time by a risky putaway at the net - as Sharapova initially escaped via two Azarenka errors. But eventually double-faults caught up with her, a fourth handing Azarenka that break straight back.
Suddenly holds of serve were impossible to come by. Sharapova picked up her second break using the same recipe as the first - hitting two lines in succession in the final point of the game to stun her rival and reclaim the advantage. Crucially, she would consolidate this break, an ace - following another couple of double-faults - securing a 4-2 advantage.
Yet another break would follow, giving Sharapova a bit of breathing room - not to mention the chance to serve for the contest. And she would need it, spurning a total of four match points as more double faults gave Azarenka hope.
The Belarusian then held to love, piling the pressure on her flaky opponent. But Sharapova, on this occasion, would not succumb - serving beautifully for the first time in a number of games to avoid any uncertainty.
The fifth match point was the one she took - ironically, it was sealed with an ace.
The final now awaits.