PARIS (Reuters) - There was no Serena Williams standing in her way but despite the absence of her American nemesis, Maria Sharapova came dangerously close to missing out on a semi-final date at the French Open with a younger version of herself.
At 6-1 5-4 down the Russian was on the verge of being toppled by the same Spanish gale force that had blown away defending champion Williams in the second round.
Just when it seemed that Venezuelan-born Garbine Muguruza would pull off an unlikely Williams-Sharapova double at Roland Garros, however, the 2012 champion’s renowned fighting instincts kicked in and she raised the decibel levels to shriek her way to a 1-6 7-5 6-1 victory.
It was a performance that led Andy Murray’s mother Judy to tweet: “Sharapova is like a tea bag. Put her into hot water and you’ll find out how strong she is.”
While that observation left the Russian seventh seed rather bemused, her own assessment was more straightforward.
“If I lost that match, I would be kicking myself in the bottom,” Sharapova said after reaching the Paris semi-finals for the fourth successive year.
Blocking the former world number one’s path to a third final in a row is a Justin Bieber fan who is aiming to become the first Canadian to reach a grand slam final.
She may be a ‘Belieber’ but there is nothing immature about Eugenie Bouchard’s game as she stormed back from behind in both the first and third sets to beat Muguruza’s doubles partner Carla Suarez Navarro 7-6(4) 2-6 7-5.
Blessed with flowing blonde hair, a bubbly personality and a powerful baseline game, it is little wonder the 20-year-old has been dubbed the ‘next Sharapova’.
“I remember when she won Wimbledon (in 2004) I was watching her on TV, and I thought, Wow, what she’s doing is cool. I want to do the same,” Bouchard said after reaching her second successive grand slam semi-final having also done so in Australia.
”Of course she’s a great champion, so to be seen as the next of someone who has won four slams and has been No. 1 in the world, it’s a compliment.
“But now we’re in the semis of a grand slam... I‘m not going to put her ... on a pedestal.”
Novak Djokovic prevented a double celebration for Canada when he thwarted big-serving Milos Raonic’s bid to become the first man in 91 years from his country to reach the semis of a major.
The Serbian rolled closer to what seems an inevitable final showdown with eight-times champion Rafa Nadal with a 7-5 7-6(5) 6-4 win over eighth seed Raonic.
While Bouchard and Raonic are helping put ice hockey-obsessed Canada on the tennis map, Ernests Gulbis is doing the same with tiny Latvia after following up his victory over Roger Federer with a straight sets defeat of Tomas Berdych.
Gulbis proved that his win over 17-times major winner Federer was no fluke as he reached the last four of a grand slam for the first time, demolishing sixth seed Berdych 6-3 6-2 6-4 to set up a clash with childhood friend Djokovic.
The 25-year-old is finally backing up the potential he showed in 2008 when he reached the French Open quarter-finals but unlike Djokovic, he did not attribute his new-found success to a wheat-free diet.
“What took me so long? I was eating wrong. I had the wrong diet. Everybody was talking about this gluten-free diet. My diet is full-on gluten,” quipped the reformed playboy.
”I like a lot of ketchup, a lot of unhealthy stuff so there is a balance which I found in the last couple of years.
“Forget about the money. Forget about fame. It’s just about my inner comfort. That’s it.”
With more millions in the bank than any other female athlete on the planet, money and fame is something Sharapova is never short of.
But when it comes to collecting grand slam titles, her appetite remains insatiable.
For almost 90 minutes on Tuesday, it seemed as if Sharapova would go the same way as Williams with Muguruza making light of her heavily strapped left thigh as she romped to a 4-0 lead before taking the first set.
While the Spaniard lit up an overcast Philippe Chatrier Court by blazing winners left, right and center, Sharapova’s misfiring serves were at times so long that it seemed as if she was aiming for the Eiffel Tower across town.
But she was not ready to leave her day job behind to become a Parisian tourist and reined in the errors at 5-4 down in the second set to win three games on the trot to level the match.
Muguruza, who had surrendered just four games in her win over Williams, refused to wave the white flag and had her rival screaming in frustration during the fourth game of the decider.
A game that lasted 12 minutes saw Sharapova stretched to six deuces, survive five break points and then let out an almighty roar of ‘Come ooooonnnnn” when Muguruza netted a service return.
From then there was no more sightings of Muguruza’s dimpled smile as the Russian rattled through the next three games.
Editing by Martyn Herman