Paris: Maria Sharapova reached her first French Open final and regained the world number one ranking on Thursday, but admitted she feared she'd never return to the top after a shoulder injury almost wrecked her career.
The Russian last held the top spot four years ago, having already won three Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon in 2004, the US Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008.
But shoulder surgery put her out of the sport for 10 months when her ranking slumped to 126 in the world.
It has been a tough road back for the 25-year-old golden girl of the sport.
She finished runner-up to Petra Kvitova, who she beat on Thursday to make her first Roland Garros final, at Wimbledon last year, and was also runner-up in this year's Australian Open.
But claycourt titles in Stuttgart and Rome in the run-up to Paris hinted that she was approaching something like her best again.
"I was in a position a few years ago where I didn't quite know if I would ever be here again on this stage playing professionally," said Sharapova.
"It's a long road back. It's a lot of days of frustration and uncertainty not knowing if you'll ever get there, not knowing how much you want it, not knowing whether it would be a moment like that for you again.
"So there's definitely a lot of tough things you have to go through to get to this point, but it's all really worth it.
"I have played tennis since I was four years old. I committed myself to this sport. I've always loved what I did. When it was taken away from me for a while, that's when I realized how grateful I was and how lucky I was to be playing it."
On Thursday, Sharapova, twice a semi-finalist in Paris in 2007 and 2011, eased past Kvitova 6-3, 6-3 and will tackle Italian 21st seed Sara Errani in Saturday's final, the first meeting between the two players.
"It's an amazing feeling to be in my first final. I have been in two semi-finals but it was always my dream of getting to the final stage," said Sharapova.
Victory on Saturday will mean her becoming just the 10th woman to complete a career Grand Slam.
But she admitted she is in for a tough contest against Errani, who defeated Australian sixth seed Samantha Stosur earlier Thursday to reach her first major final.
"It'll be a tough final. She's a great claycourt player and it will be a real challenge," she said.
Kvitova said the Russian had deserved to win.
"She has improved a lot on clay. She was better and deserves to go through. She has a big serve which is tough to return," said the fourth seed.
"I just hope that next time we are not in the same half of the draw."
Sharapova, at an imposing 1.88m, and Kvitova, just 5cm shorter, both struggled for accuracy in the testing conditions on Philippe Chatrier court, where the wind whipped up the clay and helped balls sail out.
But it was Sharapova who quickly adapted her game, not hitting for the lines as is her strength and the tactic paid off.
Having batted back a break point in the fourth game, she broke the Czech for a 3-2 lead with Kvitova firing a powerful forehand drive beyond the baseline.
Sharapova, with claycourt titles in Stuttgart, where she knocked out Kvitova in the semi-finals, and then in Rome, carved out three set points in the ninth game and took the opener when the Czech pushed a forehand into the tramlines.
The Russian hit twice as many winners as Kvitova and kept the errors down to just nine despite the gusting wind.
Sharapova opened the second set with a love service game and held off a break in the third to lead 2-1.
Kvitova, still unable to find consistent accuracy on her groundstrokes, was broken again on a second double fault to trail 1-3, but hit back to 2-3 to hang grimly onto her hopes.
But Sharapova broke again for a 5-3 lead and claimed victory courtesy of a second serve ace.