Sharapova reaches second career Grand Slam final

It will be style versus guile in the women's U.S. Open final. Bonnie DeSimone previews the final between two of the game's more enigmatic personalities.

Updated: September 9, 2006, 9:21 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- It'll be diva versus diva in the U.S. Open women's championship: Maria, the protagonist of her own "West Side Story" scene, versus Justine the Medical Drama Queen. Expect dueling arias.

Third-seeded Maria Sharapova of Russia shelled world No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo with sharp, powerful groundstrokes in a bizarre 6-0, 4-6, 6-0 semifinal played through wind gusts at Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was a breakthrough victory for Sharapova after three previous losses to the French player, and propelled her into her first Grand Slam final since she won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 2004. She hadn't made it out of a Slam semi in five tries since.

"Doesn't mean anything to me," Sharapova, 19, sniffed when asked in her post-match press conference about reversing that negative streak. "I've said it a million times."

Sharapova will face No. 2 seed Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium on Saturday night in a rumble Broadway would love.

Both are somewhat aloof characters, but where Sharapova cultivates glamour, Henin-Hardenne seems to revel in her plain, unadorned persona. Henin-Hardenne, 24, has a crafty, effective all-court game that doesn't call attention to itself; Sharapova is generally content to thunder away from the baseline, shrieking theatrically on every point.

The question, as usual, will be whether Henin-Hardenne is physically sound. She has won the last four times they've met, including last year's French Open quarterfinals and this year's Australian Open semis, but they have split their two matches on hard court.

One area where Henin-Hardenne can match Sharapova's stage presence is in her medical mystique, which could qualify her for a guest appearance on "Grey's Anatomy."

The Belgian has played three straight weeks now after taking much of the summer off, winning in New Haven, Conn., -- her first tournament since Wimbledon -- and has a tweak she has variously described as being in her back, her rib or her shoulder blade area that has prompted her to call for a trainer at least twice during this tournament.

Her rivals -- most recently young Jelena Jankovic of Serbia & Montenegro, her semifinal opponent Friday -- have often remarked on her propensity to look hampered one moment and healthy the next.

Sharapova, who has won two WTA tournaments this year, said she doesn't feel as if she's at a disadvantage to Henin-Hardenne despite their competitive history.

"It's a new match, new opportunity,'' she said. "I know I've definitely beaten her before. … I know that I'm playing good tennis and I'm confident. I'm looking forward to beating her again."

Sharapova hadn't dropped a set in the tournament until Mauresmo broke her in the last game of the second set, then leaped high in the air and executed a half-scissors kick in celebration. But she quickly regressed to the same listless form she exhibited in a 24-minute first set, when Sharapova crushed her shots, if not her spirit.

Leading 4-0 in the first set, the Russian smashed a forehand down the line that Mauresmo managed to block back, but Sharapova then closed out the point by burying a monstrous crosscourt forehand winner. Mauresmo launched an unautographed ball into the stands and let out a primal howl of frustration.

Mauresmo was subdued and reflective afterward, but at least in the immediate aftermath, unwilling to blame the loss on the toll of her most successful season to date.

She carried over her momentum from the 2005 year-end championships to win the Australian Open and two other early-season tournaments, then prevailed at Wimbledon, although she was still unable to conquer her home Slam at Roland Garros, losing in the fourth round.

Mauresmo has been ranked No. 1 since late March, but Henin-Hardenne, who is hoping to add this U.S. Open title her 2003 victory, could take over at the top for the first time in two years if she beats Sharapova.

"Have I paid for the physical and mental exhaustion from the matches that got me to this point?" Mauresmo said to French-speaking reporters in a way that indicated she was wondering herself. "Maybe. I haven't had time to analyze it.

"Maybe the year is catching up with me. That would be logical. But since I was feeling better and better through the tournament, I would have hoped to play a better match. Maybe not win, but play better. Of course I'm disappointed."

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor who is covering the U.S. Open for ESPN.com.