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Sugiyama reaches doubles final in last tournament of pro career

by Andrew Mckirdy

Maria Sharapova moved within one win of capping her comeback from injury with a title by reaching the Toray Pan Pacific Open final on Friday.

Ai Sugiyama, meanwhile, ensured her career will end with a bang after securing safe passage to the same stage of the doubles competition and staving off retirement for one last day.

Former world No. 1 Sharapova overcame a sticky patch to beat Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum, leaving only Jelena Jankovic standing in the way of a first tournament win for the Russian since returning from shoulder surgery in May.

World No. 8 Jankovic beat Li Na of China 6-4, 6-3 in the day’s earlier semifinal, but Sharapova is proving to be the dark horse of the competition and admits her form is exceeding her own expectations.

“It’s way better than I thought I would do,” she said. “When you lose early in a Grand Slam you have a few weeks to prepare but you never know how it’s going to transition from the practice courts to the matches. I’ve been really fortunate that with every match I’ve been able to step it up against different opponents and produce good tennis when I needed to.”

Sharapova had few problems taking the first set, but her momentum was checked when Radwanska jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in the second.

Radwanska seized the opportunity to level the match and broke Sharapova again early in the decisive set, but the Russian unleashed a string of booming shots to put herself back in the driving seat, finally clinching the deal with a vicious crosscourt backhand.

“I felt like my level dropped in the second set and she played some of the best tennis that she’s played against me,” Sharapova said. “I was down a break in the third set and got it back, and from then it was up and down. At that point you just have to keep going for it.”

Sugiyama and Slovakian partner Daniela Hantuchova recovered from a 4-2 deficit to take the first set of their semifinal against Gisele Dulko and Nadia Petrova, but looked to have let a glorious opportunity to finish the match slip by losing their service game at 5-3 in the second set.

When another chance presented itself at 6-5, however, Sugiyama popped up at the net to spark a clinical final game, sealing a 7-6 (7-4), 7-5 win and setting up a final showdown against Alisa Kleybanova and Francesca Schiavone in what will be the last match of Sugiyama’s 17-year career.

“We’ve got nothing to lose,” the 34-year-old said. “We might lose the match, but we have a great challenge in front of us and we are going to enjoy it.

“To win the title would be perfect but it’s not just about the result. It’s already been a miracle that we’re here, and we want to have no regrets when it finishes.”

Jankovic found herself a break down at 2-1 after getting the better of a hard-hitting first set against Li, and ran into more problems when an arm injury forced her to take a medical timeout. The interruption proved to work in the Serbian’s favor, however, as she returned to break Li’s serve and take control of the match.

“I started to feel some pain in my arm, and the balls were very heavy and humid so it was very difficult,” Jankovic said. “I received some treatment and took some medicine, and I was just trying to not think about the arm and fight every point.”

Jankovic will now face Sharapova more than a year after their last encounter, but the Russian’s enforced absence from the game has left her opponent guessing at how the final will pan out.

“I haven’t played against her for a really long time because she was away, and I don’t really know how she is playing,” Jankovic said.

“But I will just go out there and play my game the best I can, so we will see. Hopefully I can win the tournament.”