Maria Sharapova beats Sabine Lisicki, will face Petra Kvitova in Wimbledon final

The women’s final at Wimbledon on Saturday will lack the world’s No. 1 player, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, reduced to a competitive footnote by her early ouster.

It will also lack Venus and Serena Williams, Wimbledon victors nine of the last 11 years but too rusty, given illness and injury, to seriously contend.

But with 2004 champion Maria Sharapova and rising star Petra Kvitova pummeling their respective seminal opponents Thursday, the looming women’s final, according to nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova, will deliver “big-babe tennis” — powerful hitting by powerful athletes who relish competition rather than shrink from it.

The 6-foot-2 Sharapova, who was transformed into a international marketing icon upon winning Wimbledon at 17, eviscerated German wild card Sabine Lisicki, 6-4, 6-2, to reach her first Grand Slam final in 31 / 2 years. Sharapova has yet to lose a set in pursuit of what would be her fourth major title — one that would eclipse all others after shoulder surgery in late 2008 nearly derailed her career.

The 6-foot Kvitova lacked Sharapova’s laser-like focus Thursday but was rewarded for her unbridled aggression against fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka. The left-handed Czech stormed into her first Grand Slam final by blasting 40 winners past Azarenka, who managed just nine, en route to a 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 upset.

Looking on with approval was Navratilova, Kvitova’s childhood idol and the sport’s most decorated left-handed Czech.

“I think we’re seeing the new players taking charge,” said Navratilova, 54, referring to Kvitova, Azarenka, Lisicki and Germans Andrea Petkovic and Julia Goerges. “Most of all, they’re playing to win. That’s what I like to see: They’re not scared out there. They’re playing forceful tennis.”

At 24, Sharapova hardly qualifies as an old player.

But it has been seven years since she won Wimbledon. And in that seven years — a lifetime for many professional athletes — Sharapova has won enough titles (23), amassed sufficient riches ($15.1 million in winnings; easily 10 times that in endorsements) and experienced enough triumph and setback to retire from tennis with a profound sense of accomplishment.

The thought, she said, never entered her mind — even during the mind-numbing exercises she had to do for months to rehabilitate her shoulder, followed by the tedious process of reworking her service motion.

“When you know how good it feels to lift the big trophies — the ones you really want in your career — and when you know how good you can play, I always felt like I could be better,” Sharapova said. “That’s why I never had the interest of stopping. I always felt like I had a lot better things in me.”

Neither Sharapova nor Lisicki was at her best Thursday.

Seeking to become the first wild card to reach Wimbledon’s women’s final, Lisikci started strong, breaking the Russian’s serve to take an early lead. But once Sharapova found the range on her groundstrokes, she overwhelmed the 21-year-old.

Sharapova bolted to a 3-0 lead in the second set but double-faulted to lose her serve. Then, serving at 4-1, Sharapova double-faulted on consecutive points but held on for a 5-1 lead. The final tally was ugly: 13 double faults and two aces in a straight-sets victory.

Though Sharapova is the oddsmakers’ favorite Saturday, her serve clearly is a liability — one that Kvitova will likely exploit more successfully than Lisicki.

At first blush, it was difficult to tell Kvitova from Azarenka in the afternoon’s first semifinal. Centre Court looked like a Rorschach inkblot, with one tall blond with long, braided ponytail, white headband and two-fisted backhand on each side of the net.

Audio helped. Azarenka shrieked every time she hit the ball, while Kvitova shrieked — or yelped, really, as if she had just seen a giant rat — only after winning a critical point or game.

While her focus strayed in the second set, Kvitova regrouped in the third and started yanking Azarenka around the court with massive wallops of her forehand and wicked backhand slices.

“It was a nervous match for sure,” said Kvitova, 21, whose first memory of Wimbledon is watching Navratilova win on Centre Court.

Like Navratilova, Kvitova gets extra spin on her left-handed serve, which she uses to pull opponents wide. Then, like Navratilova (and unlike Sharapova), she delights in charging forward for a volley.

“When I can, I go for the volley,” Kvitova said with a broad smile. “It can be an advantage.”

Liz Clarke currently covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post, she has also covered five Olympic Games, two World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing.
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