PARIS — Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard played like someone who belonged in the final four of a Grand Slam on Thursday.
She gave Maria Sharapova a stiff challenge at the French Open before the Russian veteran pulled away late for a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory, derailing Bouchard’s attempt to become the first Canadian to reach a major singles final in the Open era.
As painful as the defeat was for the 20-year-old from Westmount, Que., it will go down as another valuable learning experience on the heels of her first Grand Slam semifinal appearance at this year’s Australian Open.
A look of dejection was etched on her face as she left the court after the nearly 2 1/2-hour long match.
It was clear Bouchard wasn’t just happy to be on the big stage. She wanted the victory and was crushed when it didn’t happen.
“She was actually very, very disappointed,” Canadian Fed Cup team captain Sylvain Bruneau said on a conference call. “She was not speaking much and I think it shows how much she believes in herself. Sometimes those tough losses are painful but sometimes they’re good.
“Sometimes you learn from it and they hurt a little bit and the next time you’re in this position, you do a couple things differently and the outcome is different.”
Sharapova, the No. 7 seed, lost the first set for the third straight match, but again managed to turn things around.
“It was a tough battle, it was what I expected,” said Bouchard. “I didn’t play as well as I had earlier in the tournament. It’s always disappointing to be a bit off. I needed to be aggressive and go for my shots.”
Sharapova won eight of the last 10 games, and has now won 19 straight three-set matches on clay.
“I would love to win those matches in two sets, but I always feel like I put in the work to be ready to play whatever it takes,” she said. “If it takes three hours to win the match in three sets, I will be ready for that.”
Sharapova completed a career Grand Slam by winning the title at Roland Garros in 2012, but lost to Serena Williams in last year’s final.
Bouchard, the No. 18 seed, was playing at the French Open for the only second time. Last year, she lost to Sharapova in the second round.
“I’m always disappointed with a loss,” Bouchard said. “I expect a lot from myself. You know, I felt like I was close today and just came up a bit short. That happens sometimes. I feel like I played a lot of good matches the past two weeks, three weeks even, and so it’s sad to see it come to an end.
“But it just motivates me … I was still so close. That just gives me extra motivation to work hard in practice and get ready for the next one and have that belief that I can do it.”
Fourth-seeded Simona Halep of Romania defeated 28th-seeded Andrea Petkovic of Germany 6-2, 7-6 (4) in the other semifinal. The final is scheduled for Saturday.
Sharapova struggled a bit with her serve, double-faulting nine times and getting broken four times. But she made up for it with solid groundstrokes, either going for winners or waiting out errors from Bouchard.
Bouchard took the early lead with her first break in the third game of the match, smacking a forehand winner to give herself a 2-1 edge. She quickly made it 3-1 by completing a run of winning 12 of 17 points.
The pair traded breaks early in the second set, and then again later. But Sharapova managed to stay ahead and broke Bouchard for the third time in the set to even the match at one set apiece.
“I don’t feel that I played my best tennis, but to be in the semifinals of a Grand Slam and winning a match where I felt my opponent played extremely well, exceptional tennis, and I didn’t feel that I was playing my best, I fought, I scrambled, and I found a way to win,” Sharapova said.
The Russian served first in the third set, and made her move in the fourth game, converting her third break point to take a 3-1 lead that she held onto until the end.
“I constructed the points well but I didn’t finish them as well as I could,” Bouchard said. “In the third set, I didn’t feel tired, but she does put so much pressure on you. She elevated her game later in the match, I tried to do my thing and I had a couple of chances but I didn’t take my opportunities.
“Maybe I let off a bit on my shots in the second and third sets.”
Bouchard, who lost to eventual champion Li Na at the Australian Open in January, saved four match points before Sharapova won it with a forehand that Bouchard missed on the other end.
Bouchard and Carling Bassett-Seguso, who lost in the US Open semifinal in 1984, are the only Canadian singles players who have made the final four at a Grand Slam in the Open era.
“The semis of a Grand Slam are always exciting,” Bouchard said. “I felt good on the court. I enjoyed it on the big stage. I tried to compete (and gave it) my best. I love playing tennis so I enjoyed being out there. I actually felt better on court than I did in Australia.”
Sharapova won her first Grand Slam title 10 years ago at Wimbledon. She followed that with major titles at the U.S. Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008. But since she recovered from having right shoulder surgery in 2008, she has vastly improved her clay-court game and has won six of her last eight titles on the red surface.
This year, Sharapova has already won clay-court titles in Stuttgart and Rome, and her six wins so far at Roland Garros give her an 18-1 record on the dirt this season.
And like against Bouchard, it’s been tough to beat her in three sets on the surface. The last time Sharapova lost a three-set match on clay was at Roland Garros in 2010, when Justine Henin beat her in the third round.
The loss ended a 10-match winning streak on clay for Bouchard, who came to Paris after winning a warmup event in Germany.
Sharapova owns a 3-0 career record against the Canadian. She also beat the former Wimbledon junior champion last year in Miami.
In the late semifinal, Halep played aggressive tennis from the outset. She finished the first set with 12 winners and seven unforced errors, while Petkovic had only three winners and 14 unforced errors.
The second set was much closer as Petkovic played with more consistency, but the 22-year-old Romanian was able to close it out in the tiebreaker with a forehand winner.
Both Halep and Petkovic were playing in a major semifinal for the first time.