As Maria Sharapova celebrated her return to the French Open final, she let loose one last scream — a happy one. The defending champion overcame 11 double-faults and won a shriek-fest against Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals on Thursday, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4.
Sharapova's opponent on Saturday will No. 1 Serena Williams, who crushed Sara Errani 6-0, 6-1 in the second semifinal. Sharapova beat Errani in the final last year to complete a career Grand Slam.
"This is such a special tournament for me, obviously being the defending champion," Sharapova told the crowd. "It was really my goal to get to the final stage." She advanced past Azarenka with a clamor. The two most notorious grunters in tennis wailed on nearly every swing, matching pitch and volume as they swapped powerful shots from the baseline.
Azarenka sounded as though she was lugging a huge bag of baguettes to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Sharapova sounded as though she was trying to push a stalled Peugeot across several lanes of traffic in the Arc de Triomphe roundabout.
"Come on, Monica," a spectator yelled at Sharapova, referring to one of the game's great grunters, Monica Seles.
The aggressive swings resulted in a seesaw semifinal. Sharapova whacked 12 aces but was erratic with her second serve, and her groundstrokes were also unpredictable. She needed five match points to seal the victory. Serving for the victory for the second time, she held at love and finished with an ace.
"Those last few points are the toughest," Sharapova said. "I'm so happy that I regrouped and came out at 5-4 and served it out really well."
Following a 35-minute rain delay before the third set, Sharapova hit four double-faults in a single game, the last of them on break point, to make it 2-all. She struggled again with her serve at 5-2, losing a tense, sloppy 12-minute game when she squandered four match points and double-faulted on the final two points.
She was steadier at the end, however, and after accepting a cursory congratulatory handshake from Azarenka, Sharapova screamed through a grin.
She improved her record at Roland Garros to 43-9, the best among active women. That includes victories in her past 13 French Open matches.
Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, was playing in her first Roland Garros semifinal. She said she still believes she can win a clay-court Grand Slam title.
"Oh, sure," she said. "Not this year."
Sharapova, who lost her opening set in the quarterfinals 6-0, started slowly again against Azarenka. Sharapova double-faulted twice in the first game and was broken at love. But this time she quickly righted herself, temporarily finding the range with her serve and cracking ferocious returns. She won 22 of the final 26 points in the first set and closed it out with an ace. "The serve is definitely something that you never know what to expect," Azarenka said.
Then Sharapova began to misfire while Azarenka found her timing. Consistently stepping into the court and smacking groundstrokes close to the baseline, Azarenka swept the final four games of the second set to even the match.
Williams blitzed hapless Errani in just 46 minutes to reach her second French Open final. The American top seed, who won the crown in 2002, will be playing in her 20th career Grand Slam championship showdown.