Reporting from Wimbledon, England — It was a stuttering start for Maria Sharapova on Thursday in her Wimbledon women’s semifinal.
There were two double faults — four serves plunked short, sailed long, dumped into the net and knocked into the wrong box, in her first service game.
She was loser of the first three games in seven minutes against first-time major tournament semifinalist Sabine Lisicki, who needed a special wild-card invitation into the main draw.
But it was a resounding finish for Sharapova, 24, the 2004 Wimbledon champion who has experienced both triumph and disappointment since upsetting Serena Williams on Centre Court seven years ago.
Sharapova cracked a satisfying forehand return that overpowered Lisicki on the final point of a 6-4, 6-3 win, overcoming 13 double faults to advance to her first Wimbledon final in seven years.
Sharapova, seeded fifth, will play first-time finalist Petra Kvitova on Saturday. Kvitova, seeded eighth, is only the fourth left-hander in the open era of tennis to make a Grand Slam-level women’s final. She advanced by beating fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka, 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.
“It’s amazing to be back on this stage,” said Sharapova, who was cheered enthusiastically by her fiance, former Los Angeles Laker Sasha Vujacic.
Vujacic was a loudly appreciative spectator, rising to his feet often and applauding Sharapova, especially when she recovered from her third double fault in the fourth game. She had been a point away from going down, 4-0.
“The first three games she played very well and I did quite the opposite,” Sharapova said. “And then I told myself to take it one point at a time and really focus.”
The first “one point,” was a secure first serve that helped force Lisicki into making a backhand error. After Sharapova held her serve in that 12-point fourth game, she came back to break Lisicki’s serve with a booming forehand return winner that was accompanied by Sharapova’s trademark shriek.
Sharapova, who has a home in Manhattan Beach, hasn’t won a major title since having shoulder surgery in 2008. Her confidence has been dented ever since, and her serve has often given her trouble.
“There were doubts because I had many expectations on when I would come back,” Sharapova said. “I set myself certain goals and I have never really met any of them to be honest. There were many [doubts] because I wanted to feel where my pain level was. So that was frustrating.”
Lisicki, who left Wimbledon with a tournament-leading 44 aces, had the most confidence-shattering double fault of the match — on break point in the first game of the second set. Sharapova gained an advantage there that she never let go.
In the first semifinal, Kvitova and Azarenka, a pair of 21-year-olds who have matching tans and similarly long braids and wickedly punishing ground strokes, tested each other by hitting corner to corner. In the end, it was Kvitova who showed steadier nerves and more power.
Kvitova’s shot-making left Azarenka impressed. “I think she can beat anybody any day,” Azarenka said. “She’s really going for it. If she’s going to play like this, like she played today, I’m sure she’ll have all the chances to win the next match.”
If she does, she’ll join Ann Jones and Martina Navratilova as the only left-handed Wimbledon women’s champions. Jones won in 1969 and Navratilova dominated the grass with nine titles between 1978 and 1990. Monica Seles is the only other female lefty to have reached a final.
Sharapova and Kvitova have played only once before, and Sharapova won the hard-court matchup in 2010.
The winner Saturday will be the youngest champion here since Sharapova won as a 17-year-old in 2004.
“I was so thrilled to be in that final,” Sharapova said. “I’m in a different stage in my career now.
“I’m 24 years old. I have a lot of experience behind my back. But I’m still playing tennis.”