court philippe chatrier

Roland Garros Rewind: Thoughts on the Women’s Semifinals

After contrasting semifinals, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams will meet in a major final for just the third time and the first time since 2007.  Here are some thoughts on how they got to Saturday.

Vengeance was hers:  At two majors last year, Maria Sharapova had fallen short against Victoria Azarenka.  A rout in the Australian Open final and a tight three-setter in the US Open semifinal had handed the momentum to Azarenka in their rivalry.  Flipping the script in a three-set thriller, Sharapova has snatched the momentum back with her first victory over the younger blonde at a major and first (excluding retirements) on an outdoor court since 2009.

30 at age 31:  Top seed Serena Williams cruised past world No.5 Sara Errani for the loss of just a single game.  This second semifinal marked Serena’s 30th straight victory and the fourth time in six matches here that she has lost three or fewer games.  She will enter the final as an overwhelming favorite.

Defense does not rest:  For the first time, Sharapova carries a title defense at a major to a second straight final.  She has not excelled at title defenses throughout her career, but notable exceptions have come during the clay season with Rome in 2011-12 and Stuttgart in 2012-13.

That was…steely:  Whenever adversity struck today, Sharapova responded without hesitation.  Dropping her serve with two double faults to start the match, she reeled off six straight games for the first set.  Losing four straight games at the end of the second set, with another double fault down set point, she broke early in the third.  Broken straight back, she broke again—twice.  Unable to convert four match points when she first served for the match, she closed it out at love on her second opportunity.

That was…quick:  While the first semifinal produced the drama that one associates with a major semifinal, Serena cruised through her match in 46 minutes.  Sara Errani should not hang her head, however.  When Serena takes it into her mind to hit an average of three winners per game, and three winners for every unforced error, nobody has an answer for that sort of display.

Fitting finish:  Relentless with her vicious ball-bludgeoning, Sharapova climbed into double digits for both aces (12) and double faults (11).  The final ace sealed her most memorable victory of 2013, just as an ace sealed her return to No. 1 in last year’s Roland Garros semifinal.  She now has reached as many major finals since shoulder surgery as she did before it, and the serve that so many have questioned has played a critical role.

Italian streak ends:  For the first time since 2009, no Italian woman reaches the Roland Garros final.  Instead, the top two seeds will meet in the women’s final for the first time since 1995 (when No. 2 Steffi Graf defeated No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario).

Question of the day:  Serena leads her head-to-head with Sharapova 13-2 and typically plays her best tennis against her.  But she struggled for long stretches in both of her major finals last year against opponents whom she historically dominates.  Which trend prevails?

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.

 

Li Na in Roland Garros finale

Li Na reached her second successive Grand Slam final in her quest to become the first Chinese woman to win a major after a 6-4, 7-5 victory over Maria Sharapova on the red clay of Roland Garros.

The 29-year-old lost the Australian Open final to Kim Clijsters back in January but will now have a second crack at lifting her maiden Slam having halted the Russian’s hopes at the semi-final stage, after she had also fallen at that stage against Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic in 2007.

Na raced in to a 3-0 lead in the first set and broke the 24-year-old Sharapova three times in total as she struggled at times with the blustery conditions. Her erratic performance was summed up by also taking two games off Na’s serve along the way.

The seventh seed repeatedly tried to overpower Na from the baseline but her unwillingness, or inability, to move around played right in to the industrious Na’s hands.

Sharapova looked to be back in the match when she broke Na early in the second after the sixth seed double faulted. However the favour was returned and she broke back when Sharapova committed the same mistake to make it 4-4.

With the three-time Slam winner then serving to stay in the match she double faulted again, allowing Na to set up a final against either the defending Champion Francesca Schiavone or home favourite Marion Bartoli, who are currently battling it out on Court Philippe Chatrier.

The Chinese sports minister is set to fly to Paris for the final hoping to witness history and he will join a continually growing number of Chinese fans in the stadium cheering on their heroine wearing the red and yellow of their nation’s flag.

“She had a huge big serve so I thought please double fault so I can win the match,” Na said of that final game afterwards. “I never believed myself that I could be in the French Open final; I wish I can do even better in Saturday’s final. It was a tough match.”

The defeat once again ended Sharapova’s hopes of finally securing a Career Grand Slam having won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open once each.

Andy Murray completes Viktor Troicki turnaround in Paris

Andy Murray resumed his epic round of 16 encounter with Viktor Troicki at Roland Garros today and completed his comeback after coming back from 2-5 down in the deciding set.

He is through to the quarter-finals for the second time in his career and now faces unseeded Argentine Juan Ignacio Chela for a place in the semis.

It completed a fantastic turnaround for the world number four who had trailed by two sets yesterday before pulling it back to 2-2 in the descending dusk of the French capital.

But any signs of the ankle injury which had contributed to his slow start on Court Suzanne Lenglen yesterday were not forthcoming, although the Scot will be far from happy with his start to today’s deciding set.

Murray had two chances to break Troicki early on but failed to take either as the Serb played the pressure points extremely well.

Game six then started in controversial style when a ball boy encroached on the court just as he dispatched a smash to go 0-15 up. The umpire demanded a replay of the point, which Murray then won. But the 15th seed rallied to force Murray in to sending a forehand long to give Troicki the break, before moving 5-2 ahead after saving a Murray break point with a luscious drop shot.

But his nerve faltered when serving at 5-3 for the set. At 30-30, a desperately poor back hand and an attempted drop shot in to the net saw Murray break back and within the blink of an eye it was 5-5.

The set passed the hour mark, and Murray let slip a 40-0 lead when serving for the match, but a superb cross-court backhand on his fourth match point somehow fell in and the comeback was complete.

On Court Philippe Chatrier, Francesca Schiavone completed a comeback of her own to overcome Russian teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and take her place in the semi finals.

With so many seeds having fallen already she will have taken great self belief from her ability to grind out the win when it mattered and she is now well-fancied to make it two French Open titles in a row after her victory over Sam Stosur twelve months ago.

She started terribly, Pavlyuchenkova’s decisive play allowing her to storm to the first set 6-1.

But the Italian fifth seed showed a resilience many of the top stars have been lacking. Trailing 1-4 in the second, she fought back magnificently, taking advantage of the teenager’s obvious nerves to set up a third.

Schiavone’s full arsenal was now on display, but this match between the oldest and youngest members of the Top 20 wasn’t finished yet. With the reigning champion leading 5-1 Pavlyuchenkova again started finding winners and clawed it back to 5-5.

Yet the momentum swung again and despite the 19-year-old Russian saving two match points Schiavone dispatched her third to secure what had looked an unlikely victory.

ANDY RODDICK AND SAM QUERREY ARE OPPOSITES: THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

Questions for Querrey – American Sam Querrey needs to find some answers as to why he’s lacking motivation, how does he find it again, and how does he do a better job of controlling his mindset when he’s out on the court. I’ll give credit to Sam for at least owning up the fact that he’s struggling to find his motivation and that he hasn’t exactly been the epitome of professionalism, even admitting that he’s tanked some points. He’s had some peaks and valleys in his 2010 season, but there’s no doubt he’s been one of the more promising young American players. To hear his latest comments was definitely disappointing. It sounds like his coach has the backbone to call Sam on it though, and hopefully between the two of them, they’re going to be able to turn things around before burnout occurs.

Grinding it Out – American Andy Roddick has been the opposite of his compatriot Sam Querrey. Roddick’s clay court preparation has been next to nil, and undoubtedly his worst since turning professional. To top it off, clay is his worst surface, and his results at Roland Garros have predominantly been dismal. When playing Fin Jarkko Nieminen, who himself has thus far had a terrible 2010 season, Roddick found himself down two sets to one. It would have been easy for him to throw in the towel and look towards the greener pastures of Wimbledon, but he ground it out like a true professional. In his second round, he takes on little-known Blaz Kavcic of Slovenia. Roddick had his serve broken on multiple occasions, endured a few rain delays, and even dropped the second set before finding his way to the finish line. I haven’t always been a fan of some of his outbursts on court, but I greatly admire the way he’s handled himself thus far at the French Open.

Darkness (and Chaos) Reign – It was only Day 4 of Roland Garros, but already there was high drama on Court Philippe Chatrier. Gael Monfils was up against Fabio Fognini. There was enough drama as it was, with Fognini staging a comeback after being down two sets to love. Then, at 4-4 in the fifth, tournament referee and Grand Slam supervisor Stefan Fransson made an appearance to presumably call play for the day. Instead of calling play, however, he talked it over with the players, and then, the insanity began as Fognini argued it was too dark to continue but was forced to play on anyway. In a statement made on Day 5, Fransson confirmed that both players claimed that they wished to continue playing, but that Fognini changed his mind after his box signaled to him to stop. Now maybe that constitutes illegal coaching, but I still felt for the Italian and found myself rooting for him. Of course he was initially going to claim he wanted to keep playing. He was playing a Frenchman and had a stadium full of French tennis fans who had patiently sat through rain delays earlier in the day (and were being egged on by Monfils) clamoring for the drama continue.  The situation was poorly handled by Fransson. Fognini should never have been put in the position of having to be the bad guy by asking for play to be called, and the fact that he got a point penalty for delay of game was ludicrous. I realize Monfils cannot be held accountable for the actions of tournament officials, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit of justice was done when Fognini came out the victor.

(Un)dressed for Success – I’m going to join the multitudes of people commenting on Venus Williams’ latest tennis attire and go on record as saying I’m not a fan. Venus pushed the envelope with similar use of the bodysuit down in Australia, and now she’s crossed the line. Even taking into account that Venus has the figure to wear the dress, and that French Open and WTA administrators alike agree that her outfit doesn’t violate dress codes, that doesn’t make it right. Her attire is better suited to the bedroom than Court Philippe Chatrier, particularly on Kids’ Day. And as a sidebar regarding Venus’ comment that lace has never been done in tennis, she should research the stir Gussy Moran’s lace-trimmed panties made at Wimbledon just over 60 years ago. I’m happy to see that women’s tennis fashion has evolved since the time of Gussy and others, but I think in this case, the pendulum has swung a bit too far.

In Need of a Break? – That’s the question some are asking of Dinara Safina after she lost her first round match to 39-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm. After winning the first set, the Russian led by a break in the second and a double break in the third, but still failed to put away the cramping Japanese veteran. The good news for Safina is that she wasn’t complaining of the niggling back injury that has hampered her year, and she also seems positive about working with her new coach, former ATP pro Gastón Etlis. It’s hard to forgo competing in a Slam, but given that grass is historically her worst surface, I wonder if it wouldn’t serve Safina well to take month or so away from the game, bond more with her new coach, and get in the valuable practice time that’s has eluded her due to her back injury.