PARIS — Might be easier said than done. Still, Maria Sharapova offered a tidy aphorism to sum up the formula that’s carried her to a third consecutive French Open final.
“It’s not how you finish a first set,” the Russian said, “it’s how you finish the last set.”
Right now, no one is a better closer than she is on clay. Nearing a second championship at Roland Garros, and fifth Grand Slam trophy overall, Sharapova gritted her way to yet another comeback victory, beating 18th-seeded Eugenie Bouchard of Canada 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 in the semifinals Thursday.
“If some things are not working out, I don’t just want to quit in the middle. Because when you lose the first set or a few games or you’re down a break, that’s not the end of the match,” Sharapova said. “That’s the type of philosophy that I play with.”
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She famously described herself years ago as feeling like a “cow on ice” on clay, but Sharapova now has won her past 19 matches that went to three sets on the demanding surface.
In Saturday’s final, the seventh-seeded Sharapova will face No. 4 Simona Halep, a 22-year-old Romanian who never before had been past the quarterfinals at a major. Halep turned in a much more straightforward victory than Sharapova, eliminating No. 28 Andrea Petkovic of Germany 6-2, 7-6 (7-4).
“I have a lot of confidence in myself now,” said Halep, who a year ago was ranked only 57th. “I played really well here; a few good matches. But next round will be very tough. I know Maria. She’s a great champion.”
She is 0-3 against Sharapova. But Halep has claimed seven titles since the start of last season — “Impressive 12 months,” she called it — and used her smooth movement and smart angles to win all 12 sets she’s played these two weeks.
Sharapova took a more difficult route to her ninth Grand Slam final.
In the fourth round against 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur, Sharapova trailed 6-3, 4-3, then won the last nine games.
In the quarterfinals against 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza, the woman who stunned Serena Williams last week, Sharapova trailed 6-1, 5-4, then won nine of the last 10 games.
That pattern continued against another 20-year-old, Bouchard. After dropping the first set, then standing two games from defeat at 5-all in the second, Sharapova won eight of the last 10 games.
“She kind of elevated her game a little bit,” Bouchard said.