- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2011

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND (AP) - Once a teen sensation, Maria Sharapova is the elder stateswoman at Wimbledon this year.

At 24, the Russian is the oldest of the women’s semifinalists at the All England Club, and by far the most experienced. Being the veteran is new for Sharapova, who was just 17 when she won her only Wimbledon title in 2004.

The other three semifinalists _ Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and Sabine Lisicki _ are all 21 and have no Grand Slam finals among them. Only Kvitova has reached a Grand Slam semifinal before, having made the last four at Wimbledon last year.

“I think a few years don’t really make that much of a difference,” the fifth-seeded Sharapova said. “I think maybe if I achieved big things when I was a little bit older, not 17, maybe I wouldn’t be seen as more of a veteran. I’d still be considered young.

“But I don’t regret for a second that I had a lot of success when I was young, because I feel like I got to learn so much more than players at my age.”

On Thursday, Sharapova will play Lisicki, the 62nd-ranked German who became only the second wild card to reach the women’s semis at Wimbledon after Zheng Jie in 2008. The fifth-ranked Azarenka of Belarus plays No. 8 Kvitova of the Czech Republic.

Sharapova followed up her Wimbledon title by winning the 2006 U.S. Open and 2008 Australian Open. However, shoulder surgery in 2008 derailed her for the next 10 months and forced a drastic change of her service motion. After dominating Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 6-1, 6-1 on Tuesday, she finally looks close to being the same player who reached the No. 1 ranking in 2005.

Sharapova hasn’t been this far at Wimbledon since 2006. The Williams sisters have dominated the grass-court Grand Slam, winning nine of the last 11 crowns. Venus and Serena were eliminated in the fourth round _ along with top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki _ leaving Sharapova as the favorite to emerge with another title.

First, she has to get past those young challengers. None are exactly new faces in women’s tennis, the way Sharapova was when she had her breakthrough.

“In one sense, yeah, they’re coming up, because they’re reaching the bigger stages of the Grand Slams and they’re trying to win their first one as well,” Sharapova said. “But I also feel it’s not the first time I’m seeing them in the draw or seeing them at the tournament. It’s not like they’re 15 or 16 years old.”

Still, regardless of who wins this year, it will be the youngest women’s champion since Sharapova’s victory.

While the Russian’s opponent on Thursday is the only remaining player outside the top 10, Lisicki’s low ranking belies her talent. She slipped out of the top 200 last year after spending seven weeks on crutches with an ankle injury.

Lisicki has won 11 straight grass-court matches this year, taking the title at the warmup tournament in Birmingham. She is the first German woman since Steffi Graf in 1999 to reach the last four at the All England Club. On her way there, she knocked out French Open champion Li Na in three sets after saving two match points on Centre Court.

“I have absolutely nothing to lose,” Lisicki said. “I just enjoy myself out there on the court so much. It’s just so great, and I’m so thankful to be out there on the court again that I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

Kvitova is looking to become just the third left-handed woman to win Wimbledon after Ann Jones in 1969, along with her countrywoman and nine-time champion Martina Navratilova.

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