Maria Sharapova is starting to be a regular at Roland Garros on the final Saturday.
For the third straight year, the Russian finds herself playing in the French Open Final. This year, she'll face fast-rising Simona Halep, who is into her first major final after cruising through her draw without dropping a set.
It seemed like a given that Sharapova would be here once her projected quarterfinal opponent and recurring nemesis, Serena Williams, crashed out in the second round, but Sharapova's road to the final has not been easy.
On Thursday, upstart Canadian Eugenie Bouchard pushed the four-time major champion to the brink in the first two sets before Sharapova gutted out a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 win in two hours and 27 minutes.
Sharapova gives Bouchard her dues: "I'm really fortunate to be the winner of this match because she played tremendous today.— Barry Flatman (@Barry_FlatmanST) June 5, 2014
That was the third consecutive match that the 2012 French Open champion found a way to win after dropping the first set.
After double-bagelling Paula Ormaechea in the third round, Sharapova found herself trailing 2010 French Open finalist Samantha Stosur 3-6 in the fourth round. But midway through the second set, Sharpova found another gear and took the next two sets 6-4, 6-0.
It was a similar story against Serena slayer Garbine Muguruza in the quarterfinals. Sharapova was steamrolled by the 20-year-old Spaniard in the first set, dropping it 1-6. Only four points away from going home, Sharapova picked herself up late in the second, finishing off the match 7-5, 6-2.
Sharapova's ability to dig deep and win ugly, even when not playing her best tennis, is what has turned her from a good player into a great one.
According to UbiTennis.com's Ubaldo Scanagatta, she heads into Saturday's final with confidence that she can come back from any deficit.
Pete Bodo of Tennis.com looked at how Sharapova breaks down her opponents mentally with icy stares, a glacial pace and screams of "Come on!":
Added together, [these habits] are a lethal accessory to Sharapova’s game and they help shed light on the extraordinary way Sharapova doesn’t just out-hit, out-think, or out-last opponents, but the way she mentally destroys them. It’s something close to a telepathic gift, and the day may not be too far off when she just stays in the player lounge, knits her brows and purses her lips and—presto!—the scoreboard gives her the win.
It sure would save us a great deal of time and anxiety.
Sharapova doesn’t merely beat her opponents; she leans hard on them, she smothers them.
Of course, if there is anyone in the Paris draw—other than Serena, that is—who can handle Sharapova, it's the new and improved Halep.
The 22-year-old has had a meteoric rise over the past year and is currently ranked No. 4 in the world. She's been the highest-ranked player left in the women's French Open draw since No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska crashed out in the third round, but she has not let the pressure faze her.
Up until a slightly nervy final set in the semifinal against Andrea Petkovic, Halep hadn't lost more than four games in a set over the entire tournament.
She defeated Petkovic, 6-2, 7-6(4) in 90 minutes and barely broke a sweat.
While Halep is a fresh face to many casual tennis fans, she has been tearing through the WTA for the last 12 months. Last year, she came into the French Open ranked No. 57 in the world and lost in the first round to No. 20 Carla Suarez-Navarro.
Since then, the Romanian has made eight finals and won seven titles—at least one on each surface. After this tournament ends, she will be ranked No. 3 in the world.
Halep has a game that is reminiscent of Kim Clijsters', with effortless power, graceful movement and an incredible ability to create angles and mix up her shots. She makes tennis look easy.
After her win in the quarterfinals, the 5'6" Halep spoke with the media about her tactics in matches, particularly against a player like Sharapova:
Usually I go on court with my tactic to be aggressive, to play fast, and to open the court, to open the angles.
If I play [against a stronger player] like Sharapova, because she hits the ball very well, I try also to be a little bit different, back from the baseline.
But I saw in Madrid that first set I played really fast and it worked, but after that I did two steps behind and was not good for me.
So for now, in my mind is just to do my game, to be aggressive, and to stay very close to the baseline. That’s everything for me.
In that press conference, Halep was referring to her match against Sharapova in the Mutua Madrid Open Final last month, which Sharapova won 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.
As she mentioned, Halep was super-aggressive in the beginning of that encounter, but let up for some reason as the match went on. She's not going to be able to do that if she wants to win her first major.
At this stage in her career, Sharapova knows what a golden opportunity this is to win her fifth major title and to continue to build her legacy.
However, Halep has five wins over top-10 players this season and has proven time and time again that she is graceful under pressure. She's shown better form over the fortnight, while Sharapova has displayed better fight.
After a tournament filled with fallen stars and shocking upsets, this French Open women's final will feature a battle of two current titans of the game.
Now we just have to see if Halep's nerves can withstand Sharapova's fight on Saturday.