STANFORD, Calif. – Maria Sharapova finds herself just playing tennis these days, a nice feeling after dealing with a return from major surgery a year ago.
Sharapova shook off a first-set loss to beat Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska 1-6, 6-2, 6-2 on Saturday in the Bank of the West Classic to set up a championship match against Victoria Azarenka.
Azarenka, from Belarus, celebrated her 21st birthday with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over top-seeded Samantha Stosur 6-2, 6-3.
Sharapova said she had to deal with doubts following her return to the tour in May 2009 after a 10-month absence due to shoulder surgery.
Her shoulder has held up and the doubts have evaporated.
"It's been a long road," she said. "I'm just so happy to come out and not worry about too many things. I'm happy to just play tennis."
Fifth-seeded and 15th-ranked, Sharapova is undefeated in four semifinal matches this season and will be looking for her third title.
The Russian star and the third-seeded Radwanska are both expected to move up in the rankings when they are released Monday. Radwanska, 0-3 in semifinals, is projected to nudge into the top 10.
"She wins a lot of her matches by wearing down her opponents," Sharapova said. "You always have to be ready for your shot to come back."
Sharapova committed eight double faults, but none in the third set. She recorded four aces with a serve that reached 114 mph.
"I was all over the map for a little while but I started to be more patient," she said. "I was making three unforced errors a game in the first set and that's too many. I needed to cut down on those, which I did and little by little I played really solid."
Sharapova has won 17 of her last 20 matches and hopes to crash Azarenka's celebration.
"I'm legal!" Azarenka screamed, and waved her arms high over her head to acknowledge the crowd after her win. She reached her third final of the season and is looking for her first title of the year — though both of her potential opponents will offer a stiff challenge.
"They're both great players," said Azarenka, who also played a semifinal doubles match with Maria Kirilenko shortly after beating Stosur. "I have to be prepared."
Azarenka has won 10 of her last 12 matches and is unbeaten in four career meetings against Stosur, who was playing her first tournament since reaching her career-high ranking at No. 5.
"I was pretty good on the return," Azarenka said. "I think I just have long arms and that's the key. If I can react fast enough I can usually get there."
The 26-year-old Stosur lost to eventual champion Marion Bartoli in last year's semifinal at Stanford.
"She played well today and it wasn't my best day," Stosur said. "She punished me when I was being too conservative."
Azarenka took advantage of Stosur's difficulty on first serves and played a solid return game. She kept the Australian on her heels with strong forehands.
"I'm finally injury free and enjoying my time on the court," Azarenka said. "I'm starting to move a little bit better and my defense has improved. That's helped my offense. I've also been working hard on my serve and it's getting consistent."
Stosur is projected to remain No. 5 next week while Azarenka can move up to No. 12 if she wins the title.
"There are definitely things I can work on when I play next," Stosur said.