PARIS – While Maria Sharapova, the superstar, was having her photo snapped and walking down red carpets, Maria Sharapova, the tennis player, was grinding through a much less glamorous pursuit.
She was slowly, steadily working on a comeback.
From the depths of the rankings after a debilitating injury, Sharapova reached the top of the tennis rankings again Thursday, courtesy of a 6-3, 6-3 semifinal victory over Petra Kvitova at Roland Garros that will officially make the Russian star the No. 1 player when the new list comes out next week.
With one more victory, in the final Saturday, Sharapova will reach two more milestones — her first French Open victory and a career Grand Slam.
Not bad for a player who was mired at 126th in the rankings three years ago after shoulder surgery that threatened to end her dominant days in tennis.
"It's a long road back; it's a long process," Sharapova said. "It's a lot of days of frustration and uncertainty, not knowing if you'll ever get there, not knowing how much you want it, not knowing whether it would be a moment like that for you again."
Sharapova's opponent in the final will be 21st-seeded Sara Errani of Italy, who is enjoying her first act on tennis' big stage.
Errani made her first Grand Slam final with a 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 upset over U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur. It was a match with wild momentum shifts that ended with Errani playing the part of the seasoned veteran and the sixth-seeded Stosur looking as if she couldn't handle the pressure.
"Maybe my problem always was that I couldn't ... win with the strong players," said Errani, who committed 21 unforced errors to 48 by her opponent. "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."
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.
On Friday, the men head back to the court for semifinals, with No. 1 Novak Djokovic playing No. 3 Roger Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal playing No. 6 David Ferrer. There's history dripping all over these matchups: Nadal going for a record seventh French Open title, Djokovic trying to become the first man in 43 years to win four straight Grand Slam tournaments, and Federer looking for his record-extending 17th major-tournament title.
"Rafa is the guy that's come in playing the best," said seven-time major champion John McEnroe. "As far as Novak and Roger, both guys have not really gotten their total 'A' game going. It's difficult to say what's going to happen, if one or both of these guys could and may step it up."
In the women's final Saturday, the Errani-Sharapova match will be a contrast in styles — the hard-hitting 6-foot-2 Russian going against 5-foot-4½ Errani, whose serve usually spins in at between 70 and 80 mph.
Given their seedings, to say nothing of all the other numbers — Sharapova leads 26-5 in career titles and about $19 million to about $2.5 million in career prize money — the Russian is clearly the favorite.
But Sharapova, who held the No. 1 ranking for 17 weeks between 2005 and 2008, is well beyond taking anything for granted.
"I've played tennis since I was 4 years old," she said. "I committed myself to this sport. I've always loved what I did. When it was taken away from me for a while, that's when I realized how grateful I was and how lucky I was to be playing it."
Her match against Kvitova, who beat Sharapova in last year's Wimbledon final, didn't feature all that much drama. 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.
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 an ace on her second serve.
When it was over, she lifted her palms into the air and looked skyward, celebrating everything that had just happened to her: The No. 1 ranking, her first final at Roland Garros, a chance to become only the 10th woman to win all four major tournaments.
Clay has never been Sharapova's specialty, but as part of her comeback, she reinvented that part of her game and became a more patient, steady player. She is 17-1 on the surface this year.
"In a Roland Garros final for the first time, when I know many years ago, I'm sure, many people ... never considered me getting to this stage," she said. "I've always believed and I have worked towards it, but I didn't quite know if I was really ever physically quite ready for that."