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FRENCH OPEN: Sharapova reaches first French Open final, reclaims No. 1 ranking; men's semis today

New world No. 1 Maria Sharapova celebrates after beating No. 4 French Open seed Petra Kvitova on Thursday in the women’s semifinals and will now play Sara Errani in the finals Saturday.

New world No. 1 Maria Sharapova celebrates after beating No. 4 French Open seed Petra Kvitova on Thursday in the women’s semifinals and will now play Sara Errani in the finals Saturday.

PARIS — One victory Thursday finished Maria Sharapova’s climb back to the top of the tennis rankings.

With one more on Saturday, she’ll be the French Open champion and complete a career Grand Slam.

Not a bad way to spend springtime in Paris.

Sharapova defeated Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-3 in the windblown semifinals at Roland Garros. The second-seeded Russian needs a victory over 21st-seeded Sara Errani, a 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 winner over No. 6 Samantha Stosur, to become the 10th woman to win all four major tournaments.

“I always dreamed of being on the final stage here and I finally have that opportunity,” Sharapova said. “And I’m more than excited.”

When she won match point on a second-serve ace, Sharapova raised her palms to the sky, looked up and smiled — one of the sport’s biggest stars letting the fans and photographers share a special moment.

Sharapova has long been the headliner at almost any tournament she enters, though this latest win will officially put her on the top line of the women’s rankings when the new list comes out Monday.

It’s a perch that may have felt unreachable three years ago, when the Russian was recovering from shoulder surgery and dropped as low as 126th.

But from that point, she has made a steady climb back. This year, she has won two tournaments and finished runner-up in three more, including the Australian Open. That, plus the performance at Roland Garros, has helped push her back to No. 1, the spot she first captured in 2005 and held for 17 non-consecutive weeks, the last on June 8, 2008.

“It’s pretty special,” Sharapova said. “A few years ago after my shoulder surgery, I don’t know if I had a ranking, but it was over 100. And I thought ‘Well, I did it one time. So maybe again, I can try to do it.’”

Her match against fourth-seeded Kvitova, who defeated Sharapova in the Wimbledon final last year, wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but Kvitova struggled with the blustery wind more than her opponent did. And she couldn’t get a handle on Sharapova’s serve. The Russian placed 78 percent of her first serves in.

“It’s tough to return her,” Kvitova said. “She plays very fast. It’s a different game compared to matches before.”

Trailing 4-3 and 40-30 in the second set, Kvitova hit an aggressive return that the chair umpire ruled missed the baseline. A short argument ensued and after the changeover, Kvitova kept glancing at the spot where she thought the ball hit. She went from 30-love in that game to losing the last four points, and Sharapova’s last service game was academic — and punctuated with that ace on her second serve.

Next up is Errani, who played a terrible second set against Stosur but took advantage when the U.S. Open champion got a case of the nerves and started hitting balls five and 10 feet out in the final set.

“It’s a semifinal of a slam,” Stosur said. “Of course you’re going to be nervous.”

When her win was complete, Errani toppled to her back and onto the soft, red clay, then looked up to the players guest box, where there was an elated mix of smiles and tears.

“It’s incredible for me,” Errani said. “I didn’t expect it, and I’m here. So, I don’t know what to say.”

Stosur committed 48 unforced errors, including 21 in the final set, while Errani simply chased and got the ball back, making only 21 unforced errors over the entire match.

Many of Errani’s serves spun in at the 70-80 mph range. She finished the match with no aces, compared to 11 for Stosur, and set aside the thought, at least for one day, that power players with power games are the only ones who win big matches at Grand Slam tournaments. The debate will be resumed Saturday when she plays Sharapova. Given the way the past two weeks have gone, there’s no counting out the Italian.

Entering Roland Garros, Errani was 0-28 against opponents in the top 10.

Now, she has back-to-back wins against No. 10 Angelique Kerber and No. 6 Stosur, along with victories over past French Open champions Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Which means that on the same day Sharapova officially vaults to No. 1, Errani will reach the top 10 for the first time.

“Maybe my problem always was that I couldn’t believe too much to win with the strong players,” she said. “But now I beat three in a row. I’m in the final in a Grand Slam. So I have to maybe try to think a bit different.”


Djokovic-Federer, Nadal-Ferrer in French Open semis

PARIS — A year ago in the French Open semifinals, Roger Federer put a stop to Novak Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak.

That also was the last time Djokovic lost at any Grand Slam tournament.

When the two men meet at the same stage at Roland Garros on Friday, 16-time major champion Federer once again stands in Djokovic’s way, with even more at stake. This time, Djokovic will be seeking a 27th consecutive major match victory, which would leave him one shy of becoming the first man in 43 years to win four Grand Slam titles in a row.

“I will try to be out there believing I can win,” said the No. 1-ranked Djokovic, who won Wimbledon in July, the U.S. Open in September, and the Australian Open in January. “There is no (real) favorite.”

The other semifinal Friday features someone else pursuing history: No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who faces No. 6 David Ferrer, is hoping to earn a record seventh French Open trophy, which would break a tie with Bjorn Borg.

Nadal is 50-1 at Roland Garros, the only loss coming in the fourth round in 2009 against Robin Soderling.

“How discouraging is it to play Nadal on this surface? … When Borg played, in my day, he was like the human backboard. He was faster than everyone, fitter than everyone, and you couldn’t get a ball by the guy,” said seven-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe, whose rivalry with Borg is among the best. “I saw guys get exhausted in the first set. … It’s like the same thing when you play Nadal.”

Nadal has won all 15 sets he’s played in Paris this year.

He’s won 60 of his 61 service games, saving 16 of 17 break points.

None of the same sort of drama that Djokovic and Federer created during their progression to the semifinals — both needed to come back from two-set deficits — and have managed to produce in their past two Grand Slam matches against each other.

In 2011 at the French Open, Djokovic was unbeaten, and looking rather unbeatable, until a four-set thriller against Federer, whose 18th ace ended their semifinal as dusk was descending. If a fifth set had been necessary, they would have returned the next day to finish things.

Three months later, in the U.S. Open semifinals, Djokovic erased a two-set deficit and two match points, the first with a wildly risky forehand return winner that barely caught the line and drew a bit of a rebuke from Federer afterward.

“I never played that way,” Federer said that day. “I believe in the hard-work’s-going-to-pay-off kind of thing, because early on, maybe I didn’t always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point. But, look, maybe he’s been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. You’ve got to ask him.”

Djokovic fought off another match point, as well, and with the crowd suddenly on his side, took the last four games. Afterward, Djokovic said he thought the match was lost and conceded that he couldn’t really explain that first match point.

Fast-forward to his French Open quarterfinal this week, and Djokovic pulled off the same sort of escape, saving four match points en route to getting past No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France.

If Djokovic goes on to win the French Open — joining Don Budge in 1938, and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969 as winners of four major titles in succession — those six match points certainly will stand out.

“When you make shots like that, and you win matches like that, you sort of go down in, like, the folklore, in the history books. It puts you at a level where suddenly you could be talked about as like one of the greatest players that ever lived,” McEnroe said. “I really respect the ability of a guy like Novak to find a way to be able to pull stuff like that off.”

Budge and Laver went 4 for 4 at Grand Slam tournaments within a calendar year. So there are those who quickly point out that Djokovic’s feat wouldn’t be considered a true Grand Slam, because it’s spread over two seasons.

Would be quite impressive nonetheless, though.

“If he was able to win four in a row? Man, I’d take four in a row any day. It’s not technically the ‘Grand Slam,’” McEnroe said, “but I’d come up with some statue or something that said I had four in a row, and I’d be parading it around my house for the rest of my life.”