The world's highest-earning sportswoman could hardly be described as an also-ran but at times over the last two years Maria Sharapova must have wondered whether she would ever rescale the heights of her Wimbledon triumph.
The 19-year-old Russian had fallen in five Grand Slam semi-finals since her 2004 victory at the All England Club but finally cleared that last obstacle at the US Open here last night.
Sharapova beat Amélie Mauresmo 6-0, 4-6, 6-0, her first victory in four attempts against the world No 1 and revenge for her defeat in this summer's Wimbledon semi-finals.
In tonight's final, Sharapova will play Justine Henin-Hardenne, who made a remarkable comeback to beat Serbia's Jelena Jankovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. The Belgian, who has reached all four Grand Slam finals this year, has won her last four matches against Sharapova.
"I'm not done yet," Sharapova said. "I had a terrible record against Amélie that ended today. I have a terrible record against Justine as well, so I hope that's an omen."
Mauresmo may have ended her long Grand Slam drought by winning the Australian and Wimbledon titles this year but she remains one of the game's most unpredictable players.
The Frenchwoman, who said she had trouble with the windy conditions, started dreadfully, losing an error-strewn first set that lasted just 24 minutes.
The second set was tight, but Mauresmo grew in confidence, attacked the net and leapt into the air in celebration after levelling the match with a forehand winner at the end of a long rally.
However, Sharapova's response was excellent. The Russian can play some of her best tennis in adversity and the power and depth of her groundstrokes quickly took their toll.
Mauresmo started making mistakes again she had 38 unforced errors compared to Sharapova's 24 and won just seven points in the final set.
Henin-Hardenne, who will reclaim the world No 1 position from Mauresmo if she wins tonight, seemed on the way out when Jankovic led by a set, 4-2 and 40-30, only to allow herself to be distracted by a row with Enric Molina, the umpire.
While most players here like the introduction of video technology, enabling them to challenge two line calls per set, many feel that umpires have subsequently declined to use their own judgement.
Jankovic wanted Molina to make his own ruling on a call but the umpire said it was up to the 21-year-old Serb to decide whether she wanted to challenge. Jankovic promptly double-faulted and Henin-Hardenne went on to win the game.
The next two games were tight, Jankovic having points to win both, but Henin-Hardenne hung on and eventually coasted through the third set.
"My concentration went down because of the umpire," Jankovic said after the match. "I could have been 5-2 up and it would have been a different story."
The 21-year-old world No20, whose broad smile and attacking game had won the affections of the crowd, said she had also been distracted by Henin-Hardenne's early back problems and subsequent recovery. The Belgian had served only 10 double faults in her first five matches here but had 12 here, all in the first two sets.
"How come when she's winning she serves at 120mph but when she's losing she barely pushes it back?" Jankovic said. "For me that's not quite fair play."
Henin-Hardenne, who admitted to early nerves, said she had been barely able to serve in practice because of a bad back. "It's not easy to play with the pain and I was also a bit tired at the end of the second set," she said.
"Then I couldn't think any more about the injury and said to myself that I just had to try to do what I had to do."
The line-up for the last four of the men's singles could produce the first all-Russian Grand Slam final, but the rest of the world will surely be hoping that Roger Federer, the world No 1, and Andy Roddick, the 2003 champion, will beat Nikolay Davydenko and Mikhail Youzhny respectively in today's semi-finals.
Federer reached his 10th successive Grand Slam semi-final, equalling Ivan Lendl's record, when he beat James Blake 7-6, 6-0, 6-7, 6-4 in a high-quality contest on Thursday night.
In their four previous meetings Blake, the world No 7, had not taken a set off Federer, who in turn had not dropped a set here this year.
The world No 1 is on course for his ninth Grand Slam title but he still has some way to go to catch Martina Navratilova, who will attempt to win the 59th and last of her career today.
The 49-year-old Navratilova, who was won 18 singles and 40 doubles titles, ends the last tournament of her career by playing with Bob Bryan in the mixed doubles final against Kveta Peschke and Martin Damm or Nicole Pratt and Paul Hanley.
US Open results
Quarter-finals: R FEDERER (Swit) bt J BLAKE (US) 7-6 6-0 6-7 6-4.
Semi-finals: J HENIN-HARDENNE (Bel) bt J JANKOVIC (Serb) 4-6 6-4 6-0; M SHARAPOVA (Rus) bt A MAURESMO (Fr) 6-0 4-6 6-0.
Semi-finals: J BJORKMAN (Swe) and M MIRNYI (Bela) bt A Fisher (Aus) and T Phillips (US) 6-1 6-4; M DAMM (Cz Rep) and L PAES (Ind) bt P HANLEY (Aus) and K ULLYET (Zim) 6-7 7-6 7-5.
Semi-finals: N Dechy (Fr) and V Zvonareva (Rus) bt K PESCHKE (Cz Rep) and F SCHIAVONE (It)) 6-4 6-1; D SAFINA (Rus) and K SREBOTNIK (Sloven) bt L RAYMOND (US) and S STOSUR (Aus) 6-4 1-6 6-3.
Quarter-finals: M Shaughnessy and J Gimelstob (US) bt V King and V Spadea (US) 6-4 1-6 7-6; M NAVRATILOVA and B BRYAN (US) bt A-L Grönefeld (Ger) and F Cermak (Cz Rep) 6-3 6-4. Semi-finals: NAVRATILOVA and BRYAN bt Shaughnessy and Gimelstob w/o.
Quarter-finals: D LOJDA (Cz Rep) bt A Smirnov (Ukr) 6-2 6-2; D YOUNG (US) bt P CHEKHOV (Rus) 7-6 6-3; P Polansky (Can) bt R JEBAVY (Cz Rep) 7-6 6-1.
Quarter-finals: K Vankova (Cz Rep) bt S FICHMAN (Can) 4-6 6-1 6-3; L Albanese (US) bt P Martic (Croa) 6-4 6-4.
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