TIANJIN • Five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova crushed Peng Shuai 6-3, 6-1 at the Tianjin Open yesterday to reach her first final since returning from a 15-month doping ban.
The 30-year-old Russian, playing on a wild card in the seventh tournament since her return, hit top gear as she swept aside the Chinese third seed in 1 hour 18 minutes.
Sharapova, who is yet to drop a set in Tianjin, broke Peng four times and conceded no breaks of her own before wrapping up the semi-final with a clinical crosscourt forehand.
In today's final - her first since she won the Italian Open in May 2015 - she will be the red-hot favourite against 102nd-ranked Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, who beat Italian qualifier Sara Errani 6-1, 6-3.
"From what I have seen, she is a really good player," Sharapova said of Sabalenka ahead of the final, according to the WTA website (www.wtatennis.com).
"She is hungry and motivated to be in this stage of the tournament. It's very flattering when someone looks up to you, but it's also very dangerous because they want that position.
"They want to be the champion and no matter who you are playing in the final, both of us deserve to be at that stage.
"I am excited. I am excited that my first final is at this event."
Sharapova has had a stop-start and injury-hit season since her controversial return at Stuttgart in April, following her ban for using the banned substance meldonium.
The former world No. 1 reached the Stuttgart semi-finals but she retired in the Italian Open second round and also withdrew from her second-round match at Stanford.
She missed Wimbledon qualifying because of injury and she was not offered a wild card to the French Open, but she reached the US Open last 16 on her return to Grand Slam tennis.
Sharapova, one of the world's highest-earning female athletes, will now expect to win her 36th career title and end a trophy drought of more than two years, the longest since her debut win in 2003.
By contrast Sabalenka, 19, is gunning for her first WTA title.
Sharapova, currently ranked 86th, has also been handed a wild card for next week's Kremlin Cup in Moscow.
She will be playing there for the first time since 2007.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS