By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Maria Sharapova, the glamour girl of women's tennis, showed she is not averse to winning ugly as she overcame some jitters to set up a Wimbledon final against Petra Kvitova on Thursday.
The 24-year-old Russian served 13 double faults on her way to a 6-4 6-3 defeat of Germany's Sabine Lisicki to reach the final for the first time since she burst into the spotlight by winning the 2004 title as a carefree 17-year-old.
Eighth seed Kvitova silenced the wailing Victoria Azarenka 6-1 3-6 6-2 to reach her first grand slam final.
Neither match will live long in the memory though after a day that did little to alter the perception that the women's game is struggling without the rivalries that have fueled interest in the men's game.
Not that Sharapova was too concerned.
"It's a great feeling. It's been many years, but it's a really great feeling," said Sharapova, who has filled the vacuum left by the fourth-round exits of champion Serena Williams, five-times winner Venus Williams and top seed Caroline Wozniacki.
"Today wasn't my best match of the championships so I was real happy to get through in two sets. So yeah, it's pretty amazing to be back on that stage."
Czech Kvitova and Belarussian fourth seed Azarenka thrashed around for an hour and 44 minutes on the hallowed turf but their "heavy metal" variety of tennis hardly captivated a Center Court liberally sprinkled with empty green seats.
The famous arena was still not full either when Sharapova, the only genuine A-lister to survive until the semis, strode out under cloudy skies to take on wildcard Lisicki.
For three games the fifth seed could hardly get the ball in court, struggling on serve, lashing forehands into the net and shooting panicky glances to fiance Sasha Vujacic as he tried his best to offer encouragement from the players' box.
She improved steadily but her progress to the final was helped by an opponent whose belief drained away as quickly as Sharapova ramped up the volume on the "grunt-o-meter."
When the ninth service break ended the contest, the long-limbed Russian blew kisses to all four stands and added an extra one for her boyfriend before aiming another at the sky in gratitude for the looming rain clouds staying away.
After storming through the draw without losing a set to reach her first grand slam final since her career was threatened by shoulder surgery in 2008, Sharapova will be odds-on favorite to collect her fourth major title.
"But the next match starts from scratch. Everything that kind of went before, that doesn't really matter," said the Florida-based Russian, who gets to enjoy a few of the perks of being a member of the All England Club.
Azarenka's defeat will at least help keep the volume down on Saturday as left-handed Kvitova is relatively quiet when she smites the ball over the net.
The Belarussian, whose sound effects again brought giggles from the crowd, was briefly drowned out by an alarm blaring across Center Court at one point of the match but it was Kvitova's accuracy that was the real danger.
The first set whizzed by in 27 minutes with hardly a rally to speak of but Azarenka got a foothold with an early break in the second and went on to level the contest.
With similar playing styles, both smashing the felt off the ball from the baseline, there was a muted atmosphere in the stands as Kvitova pulled away again in the decider.
Kvitova completed victory on her second match point when Azarenka served a double fault.
"I think it was a nervous match for sure," Kvitova, the first left-hander to reach the women's final since Czech-born American Martina Navratilova in 1994, told reporters.
"It was tough mentally but it's something unbelievable to be in the final at Wimbledon."
Andy Murray's quest to became the first British man to win Wimbledon for 75 years takes center stage on Friday when he takes on world number one and holder Rafa Nadal in the men's semis after Novak Djokovic plays Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
(Editing by Mark Meadows)