Old Sharapova making her return

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- She danced her way through the draw, even defeating world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, but on a sweltering Thursday, Andrea Petkovic finally met her, uh, match.

The new-and-improving Maria Sharapova, looking suspiciously like the old Maria Sharapova, lost the first set, then throttled Petkovic at the Sony Ericsson Open, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2. The statuesque Russian advanced to Saturday's final, where she will play the winner of Thursday night's other semifinal, Vera Zvonareva versus Victoria Azarenka.

Sharapova, a three-time Grand Slam singles champion, won the first 11 games of the last two frames and, after a brief hiccup, closed out the match with some frantic, feisty body language -- and a few extra shrieks on the house.

"By the end of second set, I was getting frustrated with myself because I felt my energy slowly slipping away," Petkovic said later. "Of course, I'm in a semifinal, I want to win this, so it's like a little dialog inside of you: You're like, 'Come on, you can win this,' but your body is like, 'No, I don't want to.'

"So, yeah, I was fighting with myself inside. In the third set, my energy was slipping away. A champion like Maria, she just feels any kind of weakness, and she just played much, much better. It was very tough for me to get inside the match."

Sharapova, who has gone three years without winning a major, appears to be approaching that kind of lofty form again. Two weeks ago, Sharapova reached the semifinals at Indian Wells, where she was erased by Wozniacki. Now, she's a win from what is viewed as the most prestigious title this side of the Slams.

The turning point? Unquestionably, her quarterfinal match against Alexandra Dulgheru. In another first-set lapse, Sharapova lost six of nine games to the 20-year-old Romanian but rallied to win two dramatic tiebreakers. When the midnight match was over, 3 hours, 28 minutes after it began, Sharapova was thoroughly soaked and looked exhausted -- but somehow triumphant.

"It was long, it was tough, it was not my best performance," she allowed. "But I gutted it out 'til the end. At the end of the day, I won, so I'm really happy."

It's been a long time coming for the 23-year-old, who missed nine months with a shoulder injury. After 238 consecutive weeks in the top 10, Sharapova finally fell out in February 2009. But now, 25 months later, she's projected to return at No. 9 -- No. 8 if she wins the title she also took in 2005. This after missing the past three Miami events.

There have been small but telltale signs her game is returning; Sharapova's win over No. 5-ranked Samantha Stosur was her first victory over a top-five player in more than three years, ending a losing streak of six. And, consider that it was Petkovic who defeated Sharapova in the fourth round of the Australian Open to reach her first major quarterfinal.

This is an important juncture for Sharapova. With the Williams sisters sidelined indefinitely, with Justine Henin retired and Kim Clijsters troubled by a sore shoulder, there is a vacuum at the top of women's tennis. Sharapova, along with Zvonareva and Azarenka, hungers to fill it.

"It would mean a lot," Sharapova said of winning the tournament. "I'm pretty fortunate to be in the finals after having a few tough ones like I had the previous rounds.

"I feel like I'm finding my form. I was looking to play a lot of matches before I came to Indian Wells. I really felt like with many matches and staying healthy that I would feel better and my form would start coming back to me. I feel that that's really playing out well."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.