Roland Garros Fast Forward: Previewing the Women’s Semifinals
Judging by recent history, Maria Sharapova might want to bring a portable roof with her when she faces Victoria Azarenka. With the exception of a retirement in Rome, Azarenka has won their last six matches outdoors while losing one total set, whereas Sharapova has both of their meetings indoors. One would hand Maria the edge on clay, but Vika won the first set in that Rome encounter before retiring down a break in the second. And Serena Williams proved in Madrid that Sharapova’s dominance on this surface does not trump her futility in a certain rivalry. Although Azarenka plays a notably different game, she shares Serena’s ability to relentlessly threaten the Russian’s serve, building pressure that takes a toll on the rest of her game.
Beyond their relative rankings, however, the Madrid runner-up has reason to believe that she can overcome the Rome runner-up. Roland Garros tests mental and emotional endurance more than any other major, especially late in the fortnight, and Sharapova always has claimed an edge in that department over this rival. Furthermore, she has shed the playfully self-imposed label of “cow on ice” that described her early forays onto the terre battue. Sharapova now moves more naturally on the surface than many women, including Azarenka, and she transitions most comfortably from defense to offense on this surface. A key to Vika’s success against her, catching the statuesque Russian out of position with tangled feet has proved more difficult on clay.
Some uncertainty clouds the recent form of both women, neither of whom has faced a notable opponent here. Sharapova and Azarenka each have looked solid but not sensational in four of their five matches while submitting a clunker in the fifth. While Sharapova’s best tennis surpasses the best that Azarenka can produce, a match played at a more modest level would seem to favor the younger woman. The semifinal should come down to how consistently the defending champion can balance shot-making aggression with patient point construction. Sharapova knows that she will reach the final if she strikes that balance with immaculate precision.
On the dirt of Roland Garros, though, staying immaculate is easier said than done.
The quarterfinals regularly have marked the end of the line for Serena Williams at Roland Garros, whether against Justine Henin, Samantha Stosur, or Svetlana Kuznetsova. Now that she has survived that stage in a match narrower than she might have anticipated, Serena may feel ever more secure in her determination to win this title for the second time. Her first Roland Garros semifinal in a decade pits her against Sara Errani, whom she defeated in a Madrid semifinal last month. Serena looked vulnerable in the quarterfinals of that tournament as well, nearly succumbing to Anabel Medina Garrigues, but she regrouped to find a higher level of form in her last two matches.
While Errani clung tightly to the world No. 1 in the first set, the disparity between the best serve in the WTA and the worst serve in the WTA top 20 proved too great to overcome, even on a slow surface. Granted, the Roland Garros clay should play more slowly than the Madrid clay, quickened by that city’s altitude. And Serena’s rout of Errani in another semifinal two majors ago should not dictate our anticipation of this semifinal, for the US Open hard court showcases the American’s offense much more effectively than the terre battue. Last year’s finalist also has displayed crisp form in all but one of her matches this tournament, much as Serena has. Errani finally cracked her career-long drought against top-five opponents by edging Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals, so she may believe more than ever before that she can challenge the elite.
But the question remains whether she can stay in the point long enough to challenge a truly elite shot-maker, who poses a completely different threat from Radwanska. The Italian must work much harder than Serena to win points, so her only hope lies in her opponent producing pedestrian tennis (by her standards) for a second straight match. That prospect looks far from likely with the world No. 1 playing some of her most focused, thoughtful tennis ever during the last three months. If Serena preserves her patience amid Errani’s flashes of artistry, we can expect to see her again on Saturday.