By Pritha Sarkar
PARIS (Reuters) - She once posed for a photograph with an eight-year-old Eugenie Bouchard but that friendly touch was not on show on Thursday as Maria Sharapova wiped the smile off the Canadian's face to set up a French Open final with Simona Halep.
While a 2002 photo of a statuesque Sharapova wrapping her arm around a pixie-like Bouchard has gone viral over the past 48 hours, the Russian hogged the limelight at Roland Garros as she shrieked her way to her third successive Paris final with a 4-6 7-5 6-2 win.
"Winning a match where I felt my opponent played extremely well, exceptional tennis and I didn't feel that I was playing my best, I fought, I scrambled, and I found a way to win," said seventh seed Sharapova after a third straight win from a set down.
She produced nine double faults, 35 unforced errors and was broken four times in a messy performance but the shot that mattered most was the blazing forehand she sent flying past Bouchard's racket on her fifth match point.
That left the Russian bellowing into the skies while Bouchard, dubbed the 'next Sharapova' was left to reflect on what might have been.
"When you play a great champion, you definitely feel their presence. Often I constructed the point well and then didn't finish it as well as I could," said the 20-year-old, who failed in her bid to become the first Canadian woman to reach a slam final.
"I had a couple of chances here and there and just didn't take my opportunities when I had a few of them. That's part of the learning experience for me."
Halep, 22, proved that she is a fast learner as she became the first Romanian in 34 years to reach a grand slam final by dousing the fire of Andrea Petkovic with a 6-2 7-6(4) win.
Many of the near-capacity 15,000 spectators who went out for a breather following the conclusion of Sharapova's 2-1/2 hour marathon barely had a chance to file back into the stadium before fourth seed Halep romped through the opening set.
But Petkovic, who almost quit tennis a year ago after her ranking plummeted to 177 following a series of back, ankle and knee injuries, showed her indomitable spirit to hang in there in the second set before Halep finally sealed her fate.
She dropped her racket on her moment of triumph before raising both fists skywards as it dawned on her that she could join her manager Virginia Ruzici, champion in 1978, in the French Open winners' circle.
"I feel amazing now. It's incredible I will play final in Paris. I did everything on court to win this match," Halep said in a courtside interview after reaching the final without dropping a set.
While Halep will turn up for Saturday's final with a fresher pair of legs, having contested only 12 sets, Sharapova remained undaunted by the fact that she had just survived her third successive three-set duel.
"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," said the Russian, who would have dropped out of the top 10 if she had lost on Thursday.
"That's the type of philosophy that I play with."
It is mantra that has served her well ever since she won the first of her four grand slam titles a decade ago at Wimbledon and she proved on Thursday that her desire to do well still burns brightly.
Even when Bouchard was serving at 40-0 up in fourth game of the second set, Sharapova kept looking for the angles and her perseverance paid off as she spooked the Canadian into surrendering the game with a double fault.
The drama unfolding on the red clay, however, was not quite gripping enough for a group of spectators sitting on the top row of Philippe Chartrier Court as they opted to lean over the wall and watch a doubles match taking place on an adjoining arena.
However, Sharapova's wails soon grabbed their attention again as the Russian turned up the volume to deafening levels as she fired two doubles faults, squandered three set points and allowed Bouchard to break her in ninth game.
Three games later the war cry of 'Come Oooooonnnnn' echoed around the Bois de Boulogne neighborhood as Sharapova finally drew level when Bouchard hurled a forehand into the net.
Bouchard had shown maturity beyond her years to unsettle Sharapova for much of the contest but her inexperience on the big stage finally showed at 2-1 down in the third set.
Perhaps distracted by a booming male voice from the crowds that urged "Come on Genie, come on", she blasted a forehand into the net on break point down despite an open court gaping.
That effectively ended the fight Bouchard had within her as Sharapova booked her place in a ninth grand slam final.
(Editing by Martyn Herman)