Maria Sharapova, the cardiac queen of tennis, once again did what she does best Thursday by overcoming a one-set deficit to defeat 18th-seeded Eugenie Bouchard 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 to reach the 2014 French Open final.
Sharapova is in the French Open final for the third straight year and will be vying for her second title at Roland Garros. She'll play the winner of the other semifinal between No. 4 Simona Halep and surprising No. 28 Andrea Petkovic on Saturday.
Although Sharapova is only the No. 7 seed, she has been considered the odds-on favorite ever since No. 1 Serena Williams was shockingly eliminated in the first round. It hasn't been easy for Sharapova as she has a penchant for falling behind, but there is no better grinder in women's tennis today.
The 20-year-old Bouchard pushed Sharapova to the limit, and the four-time Grand Slam champion gave her young opponent all the credit in the world, according to Barry Flatman of The Sunday Times:
Many view Bouchard as the second coming of Sharapova due to her immense skill and style of play. Sharapova made it clear Thursday that she is unwilling to surrender her spot as of now, but she had high praise for her young opponent entering the match, per Matt Trollope of RolandGarros.com:
Someone like Eugenie who has been up and coming for a couple of years, I think this is the year where she's really broken through, especially at the Grand Slams, playing at a high level. Last year was the last time that we faced against each other. It was the second round, and this year we're in the semifinals. It's a great stage to be at for both of us.
Most people within tennis seem to believe that Bouchard figures hugely into the future of the women's game. She has made the semifinals in each of the first two Grand Slams this season. Count retired player Anne Keothavong among Bouchard's supporters, although she favored Sharapova and her all-around body of work heading into the match:
After holding serve to start the match, Sharapova gave Bouchard some trouble on her serve. An early break would have been huge for Sharapova considering how much she has struggled in first sets at Roland Garros this year, but Bouchard was able to escape with a hold of her own.
Sharapova's first-set issues emerged once again in the third game of the match when her serving rhythm became disrupted. The French Open favorite's ball toss was out of sync, which led to a double fault that gave Bouchard plenty of confidence.
That confidence was particularly evident during the final point of the game. Bouchard asserted herself and blasted a winner to go up a break, as detailed by Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times:
Bouchard quickly consolidated that break with another hold to extend her advantage to 3-1. As pointed out by Flatman, Bouchard was officially locked in after a somewhat uncertain start:
The Canadian underdog was clearly carrying the play at this point, which impressed Ian Mendes of TSN 1200 considering the fact that Bouchard was going up against a four-time Grand Slam winner in a high-pressure semifinal:
Sharapova held her next serve to put a little more pressure on Bouchard to maintain her break advantage. Sharapova seemingly had her less-experienced opponent on the ropes as she earned a pair of break points, but Bouchard fought off both to take a 4-2 lead:
That was followed by another Sharapova hold, which once again put the onus on Bouchard to match her. Bouchard fell behind early in the game, however, and was unable to rebound. Sharapova earned the break and tied the score at 4-4 as Bouchard struggled to keep the ball in play, per Richard Ingham Evans of The Guardian:
Such a turn of events could have sent Bouchard into a tailspin, and many players would have reacted negatively. The Canadian upstart shrugged off the break, though, and raced out to a 40-0 lead on Sharapova's next serve.
Sharapova was able to save one break point, but Bouchard finished the job at 40-15 with an assertive winner, per Damien Cox of the Toronto Star:
Bouchard did not let that golden opportunity go by the wayside. She picked up a crucial hold to take the first set 6-4 and pull to within one set of her first Grand Slam final.
Sharapova is no stranger to losing the first set and having to go the distance, but Bouchard is perfect at Grand Slams after taking the first set. As pointed out by SI.com's Beyond The Baseline, something had to give:
After losing the first set in her previous two matches against Samantha Stosur and Garbine Muguruza, respectively, Sharapova flipped the switch and became a different player. That mentality appeared to shine through once again Thursday as Sharapova held serve at love in dominant fashion to open the second set.
Sharapova then earned two break-point opportunities on Bouchard's ensuing service game. Bouchard saved one, but Sharapova converted the second and began to pick up the intensity as she felt the tide shift:
It looked as though Sharapova was in cruise control as she took a 30-0 lead on her next serve, but things suddenly unraveled. She struggled to get her serve in consistently much like the third game of the first set.
A pair of double faults allowed Bouchard to pick up a massive break and swing the momentum back in her favor, noted here by Douglas Robson of USA Today:
Sharapova's unpredictable play continued in the next game as she went down 40-0 and was on the verge of allowing Bouchard to level the set. Her Canadian counterpart started to tighten up and make mistakes, though, which allowed Sharapova to get the game to deuce.
Bouchard staved off a pair of break-point opportunities from Sharapova, but the third time was a charm; Sharapova adjusted her positioning and seemingly got in Bouchard's head enough to force a double fault.
The teeter-totter affair raged on with Sharapova taking a 30-0 lead on serve and then relinquishing it. Sharapova once again found herself facing break point, but she hunkered down, dug deep and found a way to hold.
Sharapova finally came through with a big serve on game point, which Bouchard was unable to return accurately. That was a departure from Sharapova's previous efforts in the match as her serves constantly went awry, per Carole Bouchard of L'Equipe:
Bouchard was able to get herself back into it with a hold of serve to make it 4-2, knowing that consolidating with a break was a real possibility considering Sharapova's service struggles.
Sharapova did not falter, however, as she answered with a hold at love to come within one game of forcing a decisive third set. Bouchard came through with a decisive service game of her own, which gave Sharapova an opportunity to serve for the set at 5-3.
Sharapova's volatility was on full display in the next game, which was the wildest of the match. Bouchard finally converted on her fourth break point, but only after Sharapova squandered three set points, including two with double faults:
Bouchard then fully completed the comeback from two breaks down as she held serve to tie the set at 5-5 and put the weight of the world on Sharapova's shoulders. A hold would be paramount for the favored Russian, but far from guaranteed due to her overall shakiness.
As bad as Sharapova looked in her previous service game, she performed significantly better with the pressure mounting. She held with relative ease, which put Bouchard in position to potentially force a tiebreak.
Finally, after squandering three set points previously and one on Bouchard's service game at 6-5, Sharapova converted on her fifth try to win the set. After battling so hard to get back in the match, Sharapova celebrated loudly:
Despite the obvious shift in momentum, though, Robson was one of several observers who didn't anticipate Sharapova having an easy time finishing off Bouchard in the third:
Sharapova and Bouchard traded holds to begin the set. After taking a 30-0 lead during her second service game, things got a bit dicey for Sharapova. She allowed Bouchard to level the game at 30-30, but ultimately pulled through and put an exclamation point on the hold with an ace.
Bouchard seemed well on her way to holding in her own right with a 40-0 lead, but for the second time in the match, she allowed that lead to evaporate. She battled back from break point and prolonged the game, but Sharapova found a way to score the hugely important break to go up 3-1.
Sharapova worked hard to get the break, but Dan King of The Sun questioned Bouchard's decision-making as a weak volley went begging into the net to end the game:
With the score 30-30 on Sharapova's serve, the Grand Slam veteran showed her big-match acumen once again by bombing an ace past Bouchard. Conversely, Bouchard's inexperience became evident as she missed an open shot to hand Sharapova the game and a commanding 4-1 advantage.
Bouchard refused to go down without a fight as she held serve to make it 4-2 and then scratched and clawed in Sharapova's next service game. Bouchard took a 30-15 lead, but she was undone by unforced errors.
Bouchard missed a pair of open opportunities, which meant Sharapova was one game away from reaching the French Open final for the third consecutive year:
Although Bouchard showed her mettle by navigating her way around four match points on serve, Sharapova's will and determination were ultimately too much as she made good on her fifth match point and finally turned away her game opponent.
Sharapova is now the big-name favorite to win the French Open for the second time in her illustrious career regardless of whom she faces in the final.
Sharapova has a combined career record of 6-1 against Halep and Petkovic with her lone loss coming against Petkovic at the 2011 Australian Open. Sharapova has never lost to either on clay, though, and she has developed into the preeminent clay-court player in women's tennis.
One might assume that Sharapova's awful habit of dropping the first set will come back to haunt her eventually, but she is such a good fighter that it doesn't seem to faze her. Sharapova hasn't played her best tennis over the past couple rounds by any means, but she continuously finds a way to get the job done.
Sharapova has a substantial Grand Slam experience advantage over both Halep and Petkovic, and that alone should help her earn her fifth career Grand Slam title after surviving a brutal battle against Bouchard.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter