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Sharapova blasts way to French final

PARIS -- It is one of the most famous first lines in literature: "A screaming comes across the sky."

This is how Thomas Pynchon began "Gravity's Rainbow." Among other things, it refers to the V-2 rockets produced by the German military. No one knows if the famously reclusive author is (or was) a tennis fan, but the book, published 40 years ago, was amazingly prescient. For it coyly captures the heat, the atomic fission produced by the best rivalry in women's tennis today.

On Thursday, two talented giantesses from Eastern Europe with blonde ponytails met on Court Philippe Chatrier. It was No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova against No. 3 seed Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals of the French Open.

Their unabated shrieks blasted around the grounds far beyond center court. Sharapova's, in particular, had a brutally shrill quality; when the points got tight, it sounded as though she were on the verge of expiring. It was billed as a titanic bout and, indeed, the two have won three of the past five Grand Slam singles titles; Serena Williams (more on her momentarily) owns the other two.

In the end, Sharapova was the emphatic winner of a hurly-burly match 6-1, 2-6, 6-4.

"Extremely happy," Sharapova told the crowd in her on-court interview. "So proud to be back in the final. This is just a special tournament for me as the defending champion. So happy I get to play for it again on Saturday."

She somehow survived an 11-0 deficit in double faults, two of them to end the eighth game of the third set that could well have been fatal. To be fair, Sharapova's 12th ace of the match converted her fifth match point.

That was the good news. The bad news? Sharapova has lost 13 of 15 matches against the No. 1-seeded Williams, who blasted No. 5 seed Sara Errani off the court, 6-0, 6-1, in the second semifinal. Williams enters the final on a 30-match winning streak, the third best in women's tennis since the millennium.

"Well, I'd be lying if it doesn't bother me," Sharapova said, smiling. "I don't think that it would be a pretty competitive statement if I said I didn't. I would love to change that around. I mean, again, I'm putting myself in a position [to] go out there to face against her.

"Obviously whatever I did in the past hasn't worked, so I'll have to try to do something different and hopefully it will. I'm proud of the way that I came through this tournament. I have given myself a chance to face the favorite."

Truth be told, they are both better players on hard courts, but as their careers have progressed, Sharapova, 26, and Azarenka, 23, have come to grasp the subtleties that clay demands. Power on the dirt is nothing without movement, and so they have adjusted, taking smaller steps, measuring their shots with more patience. Sharapova completed a career Grand Slam here last year; Azarenka was playing in her first career semifinal at Roland Garros.

Sharapova is now a sparkling 43-9 at Roland Garros, the best record of any active woman. Azarenka fell to 19-8. Even Redfoo, half of the popular duo LMFAO and a routine presence in Azarenka's box, could not sufficiently raise her spirits, although his T-shirt, which suggested "Keep Ya Feet Movin," was sage advice for clay.

"I think overall was a pretty good match," Azarenka said. "I mean, I did so much better than last year, and I have to be pleased about that. Today I'm disappointed about the match and what happened out there, but overall I have to give myself credit for going one step further.

"And, you know, even though I lost today I still tried to come back and tried to make something happen, which before was much more difficult for me to do. So this French Open is definitely the best one so far for me."

Coming in, Azarenka held a 7-5 head-to-head advantage, but Sharapova had won their only two previous matchups on clay. Two years ago, Vika retired after trailing a set and 0-3 in Rome, and last year she lost the Stuttgart final 6-1, 6-4.

Azarenka opened the match with a break of Sharapova's serve. And then she went completely dark. Sharapova -- who lost the first six games in her quarterfinal against Jelena Jankovic -- ripped off six straight games and took the set in a surprising 28 minutes.

Sharapova is a notorious front-runner -- in a good way. She was 131-6 in previous matches when she won the first set. Now she's 132-6.

Azarenka ended the streak by holding her first serve of the match and seemed to find a temporary equilibrium. The two continued on serve until Azarenka authored a break in the sixth game. Following an exchange of moon balls, a blistering forehand winner gave her a break point and then Sharapova's weak backhand found the net. Azarenka weathered a love-30 hole on her subsequent serve.

And then a curious thing happened. In the midst of a glorious day at Roland Garros -- the Fahrenheit temperature cleared 80 for the first time of the fortnight -- rain briefly visited Court Philippe Chatrier. Play continued, even as the umbrellas came out. And Sharapova lost her serve and the set when she drilled another double fault.

After 67 minutes, it was all even.

The rain opened up again, and the players were sent to the locker room for what turned out to be a 30-minute delay. This clearly benefited Sharapova, as Azarenka's momentum completely leaked away. Last year, Novak Djokovic was making inroads on Rafael Nadal's lead in the final when rain cooled him off. Nadal won in four sets.

The third set? It was a tension convention, as the two players broke each other's serve like so much delicate porcelain.

Sharapova got the better of it, working out to a 5-2 lead and had four match points on her racket -- but couldn't close. Her 10th and 11th double faults gave Azarenka one more chance to break her.

It didn't happen. Sharapova's ace sent her into the finals for the second consecutive year. That was, for a while anyway, good news worth savoring.

"Look," Sharapova said afterward, "I had a tremendous year last year here. Obviously to come back as the defending champion, it's extremely special to get back on that stage where it comes down to the last two players of the tournament.

"I hope that I can bring my best tennis for the last one."