Maria Sharapova reached her first final of the year on Friday, beating Maria Kirilenko 6-4, 6-3 in a semi-final slugfest to set up a title showdown with Caroline Wozniacki at Indian Wells.
By reaching the final, Sharapova is projected to rise one spot to No. 2 in the world when the new rankings are announced tomorrow.
“It’s better than three, right?” said Sharapova, who was more focused on capturing a first title since her French Open victory last year gave her a career Grand Slam.
She is playing in only her third tournament of the year. After withdrawing from Brisbane with a right collarbone injury she reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open and Doha.
The Russian lifted the trophy in the California desert in 2006 and was runner-up last year to Victoria Azarenka.
However, in Wozniacki, who outlasted fourth-seeded Angelique Kerber 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, she will be up against an opponent with an equally strong Indian Wells resume: a title in 2011 and a runner-up finish in 2010.
“She’s always a tough opponent,” Sharapova said of Wozniacki. “She’s a grinder. She makes you work really hard on the court and gets a lot of balls back.”
Although Sharapova built a 3-1 lead in the opening set, she thought she could have started even stronger against the 15th-seeded Kirilenko.
“I felt like it could have been up 4-0,” Sharapova said, adding that she wanted as much cushion as she could build against a player who had already beaten third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska and fifth-seeded Petra Kvitova en route to the semi-finals.
“She’s had a few comebacks in this tournament and really good results,” Sharapova said. “So, yeah, I stepped it up in the second set.”
Wozniacki turned the tables on Kerber, who had won their last three meetings, but she had to work two and a half hours to do it.
The match featured 14 breaks of serve — seven in the third set alone.
In the men’s tournament, erratic serving cost Andy Murray dearly as the US Open champion was knocked out in the quarter-finals 6-7 (5/7), 6-3, 6-1 by Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro on Friday.
Though the British world No. 3 edged a close first set on the tiebreak, he lost serve once in the second and three times in the third to make a premature exit from the ATP Masters 1000 event at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Seventh-seeded Del Potro will next face world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who was barely tested as he demolished Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 6-1 earlier on Friday to extend his unbeaten run to 22 matches.
The first two quarter-finals were completed on Thursday, Rafa Nadal continuing his impressive comeback by thumping long-time rival Roger Federer 6-4, 6-2 and Czech Tomas Berdych sweeping past big-serving South African Kevin Anderson 6-4 6-4.
Top seed Djokovic delivered a ruthless display against the eighth-seeded Tsonga in the first match of the day, breaking his error-prone opponent twice in each set and not dropping a single point on his own serve in the second set.
“I definitely feel very happy about this performance today,” twice Indian Wells champion Djokovic said after improving his record for the season to 17-0 in a match lasting just 54 minutes.
“I thought Jo didn’t play his best. He made a lot of unforced errors and his serve wasn’t going well and that made my life a lot easier on the court,” he said. “I really didn’t care about how my opponent felt. I just tried to focus on the job I need to do, and my performance was really good.”