WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Seven years after winning Wimbledon as a 17-year-old, Maria Sharapova is back in the final, this time as a three-time Grand Slam winner and heavy favorite.
Petra Kvitova is preparing for her first Grand Slam final. The 21-year-old Czech might be dreaming of a debut like that of her Russian rival, who overpowered the top-seeded Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4 in 2004 to make her mark as a future superstar of the game.
The gap between Wimbledon finals might surprise some, but she was sidelined by a shoulder injury and had surgery in 2008. She's slowly made her way back to the final week of a Grand Slam.
"That's the way it goes," Sharapova said Friday. "You obviously hope that you can be in the final stages every single year, but I guess it's just not meant to happen. This is the year I'm supposed to be back in the final. I don't know why. I'm not going to question it."
Since 2004, Sharapova has added the 2006 U.S. Open and the 2008 Australian Open titles. But shoulder surgery in October 2008 took her off the singles court for nearly 10 months and required a change in her service motion.
The match Saturday against Kvitova will be her first Grand Slam final since 2008. It is these moments that Sharapova visualized while nursing her shoulder back to health.
"I had time to reflect on my career and things that I've achieved," Sharapova said. "But I think I was always looking towards the future more than anything than in the past, because that's where I was trying to envision myself at some point to be getting back out there."
Looking back to the 2004 final, Sharapova said she spent the day trying to recover from illness. As she looked ahead to the biggest match of her career, Kvitova dismissed talk of nerves.
"No, I'm not nervous," she said. "I'm looking forward to tomorrow, for sure. I slept well. It's OK."
If Kvitova can hold her nerve, the final could come down to the serve. The left-handed Kvitova has hit 35 aces in her six matches so far and it was her serve that was a determining factor in her semifinal win over fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka.
Sharapova managed to beat Sabine Lisicki despite 13 doubles-faults and a first-serve percentage of 48.
Martina Navratilova, the last left-handed women's champion at Wimbledon in 1998, said Kvitova "matches up well" against Sharapova.
"It's such a tossup. It basically comes down to who serves better," Navratilova said. "Once the ball is in play, Sharapova has an edge with Petra. I think Petra will return better (than Lisicki did) and it will be easier for her to hold serve."
Kvitova has described 9-time Wimbledon winner Navratilova as her idol.
"She's very sweet," Navratilova said. "It's funny because I haven't had that many players that said, 'You're my hero.' It's nice. I thought she was too young for that."
Kvitova hadn't won a match on grass before her run to the semifinals at the All England Club last year.
Since then, she has won three WTA Tour titles and surged into the top 10. The 21-year-old trained at the same club in Prostejov as 2010 Wimbledon men's finalist Tomas Berdych. Martina Hingis also practiced there.
Kvitova said Friday her parents are flying over from Prostejov to watch her attempt to become the first Czech woman to win Wimbledon since Jana Novotna in 1998.
Sharapova will be supported by her fiance, New Jersey Nets guard Sasha Vujacic, who has been at the championships throughout the two weeks. Less a carefree teenager, the 24-year-old Sharapova will go into the final with a different perspective.
"I'm a few years older, more mature. I hope so at least," she said, smiling. "You develop, not only as a player, but as a person as well.
"Obviously a big part of my life is tennis, but at the end of the day I'm not going to be playing for my whole life. It's great to have someone that will be sharing my life with onwards. I want to explore life. There are many other things in life as well that I'd want to do."