Tennis: Maria Sharapova reaches first final since drugs ban in Tianjin Open

Maria Sharapova hits a return against Peng Shuai during their women's singles semi-final match at the WTA Tianjin Open tennis tournament in Tianjin on Oct 14, 2017.
Maria Sharapova hits a return against Peng Shuai during their women's singles semi-final match at the WTA Tianjin Open tennis tournament in Tianjin on Oct 14, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

TIANJIN, China (AFP) - Five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova crushed Peng Shuai 6-3, 6-1 at the Tianjin Open on Saturday to reach her first final since serving a 15-month doping ban.

The 30-year-old Russian, playing on a wildcard in the seventh tournament of her comeback, hit top gear as she swept aside the Chinese third seed in one hour, 18 minutes.

In front of a large home crowd, a businesslike Sharapova broke four times and conceded zero breaks of her own before wrapping up the semi-final with a clinical crosscourt forehand.

In Sunday'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 qualifier Sara Errani 6-1, 6-3.

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 statuesque former world No. 1 reached the Stuttgart semis but she retired in the Italian Open second round and also withdrew from her second-round match at Stanford.

Sharapova missed Wimbledon qualifying because of injury and she wasn't offered a wildcard to the French Open, but she reached the US Open last 16 on her return to Grand Slam tennis.

She has cut a swathe through the limited draw in Tianjin, beating Irina-Camelia Begu, Magda Linette, Stefanie Voegele and Peng without dropping a set.

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 after a run to the Tianjin final that included wins over China's Duan Ying-Ying and Lin Zhu.

Sharapova, currently ranked 86th, has also been handed a wildcard for next week's Kremlin Cup in Moscow, which she will play for the first time since 2007.