Thursday, June 02, 2011

RG.12- "Works of Love" *

Some things aren't meant to be. Others are drenched in destiny. Shame on any of us for sometimes not always being able to tell the difference.

"You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you." - Søren Kierkegaard

Two months ago, no one would have given much hope to the notion that Maria Sharapova might be a contender at Roland Garros. By the time Thursday arrived, she'd morphed into the "favorite." A month ago, Li Na was struggling and breaking in a new coach while slogging through the portion of the season that featured her least favorite surface. "You do all the work in a point, then lose it" on clay, she joked today, after having suddenly started to resemble the winning (both on and off-court) player who took the Australian Open by storm and force of personality in January. Two weeks ago, while everyone was scanning the draw looking for someone who might be a champion in Paris, you had to search high and low to find someone who was bringing Francesca Schiavone's name into the conversation, even though she was really the only champion that really should have mattered in such a wide open draw -- the defending champion. But once the Italian vet rediscovered her old magic on the terre battue, she made her "shocking" title run of a year ago ripe for an immediate "reclassification."

Sharapova entered today's semifinal with Li with more career match wins (30) at Roland Garros than any other slam, but she was still looking for her first title in Paris after having hoisted trophies in the other three grand slam cities. Playing on the clay has always been a struggle for the once self-described "cow on ice," but over the past month she'd managed to convince a large number of people -- including herself -- that she was ready to put her hands on the Coupe de Suzanne Lenglen. It seemed reasonable, as her game, always so reliant on her serve, had recently started to remind anyone who remembered the powerful entity it had been in her pre-shoulder surgery heyday. With her confidence in her best shot secure, her risky game once again had the necessary foundation from which she could attempt to dictate play without the worry that her efforts would collapse like a house of cards. Sharapova's is a game that can look positively awesome -- exquisite, even -- when it's in full-flight, but it's also vulnerable against any player willing and able to face up to it without blinking. Earlier in this tournament, 17-year old Caroline Garcia proved to nearly to capable of doing as much, but failed to cross the finish line after it'd been so close that she could touch the tape stretched across it. Agnieszka Radwanska, too, was unable to capitalize on the opportunities that Sharapova's early lapses had presented her with. Once they allowed the Russian to draw even with them in their respective matches, they were done for. The question has been lingering for about a week now: What will happen to Sharapova's mojo if/when she comes up against a player able to withstand the pressure of her no-holds-barred attack and not blink in its face?

Well, we found out when the Russian played Li today. She lost. Against the versatile Chinese veteran with the ability to employ both offensive as well as defensive abilities to gain an advantage in a point, Sharapova's errors in the windy conditions on Chatrier Court hounded and, ultimately, haunted her.

Early in the 1st set, Li managed to withstand Sharapova's attempt to jump on top with her blistering groundstrokes. With her opponent unable to assume her preferred frontrunner role, Li gained an early break point and gladly accepted the 2-0 lead that the Russian's backhard error produced. When Sharapova immediately held break points of her own one game later, the Chinese woman tactically played the moment perfectly. Li's shots up the middle of the court prevented Sharapova from gaining control of the point with her big shots, then her crosscourt groundstrokes took advantage of her edge over Sharapova in movement, dragging the Russian wide enough to allow Li to step in to take control of the action herself. It was enough to keep Sharapova penned in, and Li held to go up 3-0. Sharapova responded by trying to make the points shorter, attacking Li's first serves with ferocity. But, still, Li managed to hold for 4-1.

In game #6, Sharapova whacked an ugly-looking double-fault into the net after a particularly bad toss in the wind. After facing break point, she ultimately held serve, but the moment foreshadowed the course of the rest of the match. Perhaps the conditions got inside Sharapova's head, messing with the confidence in her serve that she's worked so hard to build this spring. That, and her unwillingness to pull back on her shots and play a "safer," un-Sharapovian brand of tennis, simply played right into the waiting hands of Li, who exploited Sharapova's weaknesses for all that they were worth. The Russian got a break to get to 4-3, but after Li prevailed in a hard-hitting 22-shot rally to carve out a break point in game #8, the dam cracked a bit. Sharapova's third double-fault of the game gave the break to Li for 5-3. Again, Sharapova's response was to attack, smashing a return at Li's feet to break back one game later to get back on serve. It didn't last, though. Sharapova would double-fault again in the following game. Li seized control of the rallies against the briefly-tentative Russain as she went down love/40 on her own serve. At the end of a rally highlighted by Li's defense, a Sharapova forehand off a high-bouncing ball clanged off the net cord and landed wide rather than into the open court on Li's side of the net. The Chinese veteran seized the 1st set at 6-4. Once again, the Russian's survival was teetering on the brink. This time, though, her opponent pushed her off the edge.

It took a little bit of work, though.

Sharapova's confidence surged early in the 2nd. She grabbed a break to start, and got off to a 3-1 lead. When Li hit two double-faults and fell down 15/40, though, Sharapova failed to extend her advantage. Li held for 3-2, forestalling the sort of confidence-fueled surge that pulled the Russian ahead in her previous matches at this RG. After hanging on in game #5, Li finally saw her chance to pounce in game #8. Another Sharapova double-fault, followed by a good Li return, got her a break point. Another double-fault from Sharapova knotted the set at 4-4. Sensing her chance in the next game, Li continued her pattern, following up a wide serve with a forehand winner down the line to get to game point. She held for 5-4, and since she wasn't going to fold ala Sharapova's other opponents in Paris, the Russian was forced to finally change tactics. After she'd once again opened her serve game with a double-fault, Sharapova (betraying a slight sense of panic?) even made a rare of-her-own-volition excursion to the net to put away a short volley. The change worked, but only temporarily. Sharapova managed two winners by hitting behind Li in the middle of rallies, holding for 5-5. But Li held her serve at love for 6-5. Then Sharapova's game finally cracked.

Sharapova's ninth double-fault of the match continued her service game's fighting-against-itself pattern in the windy conditions. Li went up 30/15, then reached match point after prevailing in a rally than ended with Sharapova sailing a shot long. With Li's proficiency pinning both of Sharapova's (good) shoulders against the wall... the Russian double-faulted for a tenth time. Match over. 6-4/7-5. In the end, Li got to Sharapova's forehand, forcing her into erratic shots by moving her along the baseline with her crosscourt groundstrokes, then showing a willingness to pounce when she had the opening for a winner. As for the Russian's serve, Li just let the wind and Sharapova's own uncomfortability chip away until, after having been THE key pressure shot for her all tournament, it was finally collapsed by the force of its own weight in the match's closing moments.

I've mentioned throughout this tournament that I remained somewhat unconvinced that Sharapova's game was yet sound enough to make it through seven matches without one dud meaning the end of the road for her. As she moved along, escaping numerous traps against players who weren't capable of closing her out, I ever-so-slightly began to hedge and wonder whether the "Supernova II" years of her career might be more Serena-esque in nature, and that such near-losses were going to provide the necessary fuel for greater success like they do for Williams. Umm, no. I was right at the start about Sharapova needing to be a frontrunner from Day 1 to win a slam. At least THIS slam. At least RIGHT NOW. The Russian's Supernovic rebirth will have to wait. But for the first time since her shoulder surgery, I'm edging decidedly in the direction of thinking that it might be just around the corner. If not in London, then assuming good health, most definitely it's a distinct possibility in New York.

After having turned away the big shots of players like Sharapova, Azarenka and Kvitova at this tournament, Li will be faced with an entirely different task in the final. There, she'll be facing an Artist.

One year after playing the part of a "dreamer" who unexpectedly hit it big, Francesca Schiavone has emerged in the form of a "true champion" at this year's Roland Garros. In other words, she's been the sort of player who, even when not at her best, has been able to dig deep enough within her soul just in time to come up with the heart -- and shots -- necessary to take down an opponent. It's something she likely wouldn't have been able to do had it not been for title run of 2010, though. Playing with "house money" with a championship in head, it was easier for Schiavone to be "free" in the middle of the crucial moments she's faced in Paris so far. She'd already experienced the greatest moment in her career, and was made forever stronger because of it. Jelena Jankovic didn't possess such a characteristic, and she faded down the stretch in the two's Round of 16 match-up. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was not yet ready to reach such heights, and squandered a 6-1/4-1 lead.

But after pushing through such "artistic struggles" over the past two weeks, Schiavone arrived on Day 12 fully feeling like she was in her element. Against Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli, she of the herky-jerky energy and flat, two-fisted-from-both-sides Selesian groundstrokes, the 30-year old Italian had all her creative tools at arm's length. Angles. Drop shots. Sweeping forehands and backhands. Volleys. Athletically graceful slides across the red clay. Legs that always seemed to place her in the perfect position on the court to produce the smoothest transition to success, and the necessary imagination to employ a wide variety of shots and use the ENTIRE court to achieve her purposes, rather than just set up camp at the baseline and try to outhit the person on the other side of the net. The big hitters are often spectacular, but it's a player with the diverse skills of a Schiavone who allows you to embrace the beauty of a sport.

As comfortable as ever in her skin on Thursday, Schiavone appeared to "loosen up" today. Her game was akin to a jam session. A little bass here. Some well-placed scatting there. Yet, it all worked perfectly together as a performance. There was no struggle to get her creative juices flowing. She just plugged herself in and ripped off a brilliant riff. It was like the '10 final all over again... except without the "can-you-believe-what's-going-on?" undertones.

Schiavone's a champion now. She KNOWS she has this in her.

Hitting all the fight notes, the Italian moved herself into position by getting a break point at 4-3 in the 1st set, then proceeded to push Bartoli around the court with her groundstrokes, using the entire playing surface before opening up the court and allowing herself to end the rally with her preferred punctuation. Schiavone got the break for 5-3, then served out the set at 6-3. In the 2nd, after dropping serve in game #2 to fall behind 2-0, she quickly got back on track by claiming a long Bartoli serve game to get back on serve. Remembering the foreshadowing note she'd dropped in the opening set, Schiavone grabbed the 2nd set advantage at nearly the same point she had in the 1st. After the Pastry had attempted to run Schiavone along the baseline, the defending champion responded by hitting a running forehand for a winner to get a break for a 4-3 lead. Moments later, she'd won 6-3/6-3.

Bartoli didn't play poorly, but one never got the sense during the match that Schiavone was anything but in control of the ending. Her semifinal performance was nothing like the "rough drafts" of earlier rounds, but when she finally celebrated her second straight trip to the Roland Garros final it wasn't an expression of relief that seemed to permeate her being. What I thought I saw was a player who sensed her work wasn't QUITE yet over. She still has one more chapter to compose in Paris before she can close the book on this particular work of love.

She knows the ending she wants. Now she just has to write it.

Two weeks ago, Schiavone likely had never given too much thought to being in this position. Ever since that fateful day last June, that she'd be one win away from repeating as Roland Garros champion has seemed even less likely than her original surprising Parisian masterpiece. Yet, here she is. Li, too, surely didn't think the grand slam dream that she was denied in January by Kim Clijsters would be followed up so soon with another opportunity. The Chinese vet says that she now knows what to do in a slam final, and watching how her additional knowledge matches up with Schiavone's even-more-successful earlier experience promises to be an interesting tussle.

But even as Li has defied expectations every step of the way in Paris, it's hard to escape the notion that the match-up of a 30-year old champion against a 29-year old challenger seems somehow fated to only go one way. Or maybe I just think that because it feels so "right."

Even the regulars at Roland Garros must have SOME sense that Schiavone might be two days from joining the likes of Justine Henin as a player forever identified as a special player around whose heart this tournament will forever be intertwined. That said, there was an odd little moment during her match today during which Schiavone WAS reminded that she was a visitor to Paris. In the fourth game of the match, the Italian heard a few boos directed at her from the stands when she approached the chair umpire to discuss something. Though they had no idea what the discussion was about, the thought of the dissenters was obviously that she was complaining about some aspect of Bartoli's on-court machinations (the Pasty WAS later warned for taking too long to serve). As Schiavone walked back to the base, the wry, "but I thought you loved me" smile on her face was priceless. There were no hard feelings, though. The denizens of Paris can't help but fall rapturously in love with the work of someone who's so obviously comfortable in their company, and Francesca understands that sometimes the locals just have to show that they have the back of one of "their own," too.

Schiavone knows she's been tapped by the Tennis Gods' collective "lucky stick." I mean, how often is it that an artist can be beloved and appreciated for their skills and passion while they're still alive to experience it? In two days time, Schiavone could find herself in rare company indeed.

Just don't tell Na.

* - Thanks again, Søren.

...the first champion of this RG was crowned after the Mixed Doubles final -- and it's Casey Dellacqua and Scott Lipsky! The pair defeated top-seeded Katarina Srebotnik and Nenad Zimonjic to claim their first career slam crowns. So, Srebotnik misses out (at least for now) on getting her sixth career Mixed Doubles slam title, a total which would have tied her with Margaret Court for third on the all-time Open Era list, behind only Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.

Speaking of Martina, in the Legends final, Navratilova and Jana Novotna downed Iva Majoli and Conchita Martinez, 7-5/6-2. And Dutch all-timer Esther Vergeer won her SF by a 6-0/6-0 score (I think she nearly does that every time out, doesn't she?) to advance to yet another slam final in the Women's Wheelchair competition. juniors action, '10 RG Girls runner-up Ons Jabeur defeated top-seeded Daria Gavrilova in the QF. The Tunisian teen will face Pastry Caroline Garcia next, with the winner meeting either Monica Puig (PUR) or Irina Khromacheva (RUS) in the final. Both Puig and Garcia are holdovers from the Girls SF at the Australian Open, where Puig lost in the final to An-Sophie Mestach.

Speaking of Mestach, the Waffle swept the singles and doubles titles in the junior competition in Melbourne, and her doubles partner there -- the Netherlands' Demi Schuurs -- is still alive with a chance to win a second '11 Girls Doubles slam crown. She's in the semis with Hordette Victoria Kan.

...AWARDS UPDATE: If Garcia wins the Girls title, she'll get the "Junior Breakout" honor, while Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is crowned "It Girl." Is she doesn't win, Garcia will get the "It Girl" crown and the junior champ gets the "Breakout" treatment. Well, that is, unless it's Jabeur, who won that award at last year's RG. At that point, the "BO" winner would be the other finalist, either Puig or Khromacheva.

Dellacqua already received the "Comeback" award for RG, so the "Doubles Star" will be shared by the Doubles champions since none of the finalists -- from the teams of Mirza/Vesnina and Hlavackova/Hradecka -- has yet won a slam Women's Doubles title.

With both Women's Singles finalists worthy in this latest wild-and-crazy Roland Garros, the "Mademoiselle & Madam Opportunity" winners are Schiavone and Li. The last time two women shared the honor in Paris, their names were Anastasia and Elena. As in Myskina and Dementieva, who jointly kicked off the Russian slam revolution of '04 by facing off in the final.

...and, finally, the wins by Li and Schiavone prevented us from having a final between players who have quite possibly produced the two most self-deprecating comments about their play in tennis history. Sharapova's comment that she was a "cow on ice" on clay is (probably too) well known, and if she'd have faced off in the final against Bartoli, who recently compared her past play on clay to "an elephant in a porcelain shop," we would have had a battle fit for Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom"... or maybe one of those Discovery Channel shows where they pit one animal against animal in an imaginary battle that would never happen in nature. Rather than "Shark vs. Croc," it'd be "Cow vs. Elephant." Hey, I might watch it.

#5 Francesca Schiavone/ITA vs. #6 Li Na/CHN

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP vs. #4 Andy Murray/GBR
#3 Roger Federer/SUI vs. #2 Novak Djokovic/SRB

#7 Mirza/Vesnina (IND/RUS) vs. Hlavackova/Hradecka (CZE/CZE)

Cabal/Schwank (COL/ARG) vs. #2 Mirnyi/Nestor (BLR/CAN)

Dellacqua/Lipsky (AUS/USA) def. #1 Srebotnik/Zimonjic (SLO/SRB) 7-6/4-6/10-7

#9 Ons Jabeur/TUN vs. #3 Caroline Garcia/FRA
#5 Monica Puig/PUR vs. #2 Irina Khromacheva/RUS

Mate Delic/CRO vs. #14 Dominic Thiem/AUT
Bjorn Fratangelo/USA vs. (WC) Tristan Lamasine/FRA

Kan/Schuurs (RUS/NED) vs. Ninomiya/Ozaki (JPN/JPN)
Tang/Ran (CHN/CHN) vs. #2 Khromacheva/Zanevska (RUS/UKR)

Krueger/Vinsant (USA/USA) vs. Jankovic/Kuzmanov (SRB/BUL)
#4 Artunedo Martinavarr/Carballes Baena (ESP/ESP) vs. Dubarenco/Manafov (MOL/UKR)

2004 Anastasia Myskina, RUS & Elena Dementieva, RUS
2005 Mary Pierce, FRA
2006 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2007 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2008 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2009 Samantha Stosur, AUS
2010 Francesca Schiavone, ITA
2011 Francesca Schiavone, ITA & Li Na, CHN

6...Caroline Wozniacki (4-2)
3...Petra Kvitova (3-0)
3...Victoria Azarenka (2-1)
3...LI NA (1-1)
3...Kim Clijsters (1-2)

2000-01 Wimbledon: Venus Williams
2000-01 US Open: Venus Williams
2001-02 Australian Open: Jennifer Capriati
2002-03 Wimbledon: Serena Williams
2005-07 Roland Garros: Justine Henin
2007-08 Wimbledon: Venus Williams
2009-10 Australian Open: Serena Williams
2009-10 Wimbledon: Serena Williams
2009-10 US Open: Kim Clijsters
2010-11 Roland Garros: Francesca Schiavone????

2006 Justine Henin (4) - AO/RG/WI/US
2008 Ana Ivanovic (2) - AO/RG
2008-09 Serena Williams (3) - WI/US/AO
2010 Vera Zvonareva (2) - WI/US
2010-11 Kim Clijsters (2) - US/AO
2011 LI NA (2) - AO/RG

16...Serena Williams (13-3)
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
8...Kim Clijsters (4-4)
4...Maria Sharapova (3-1)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)
3...Dinara Safina (0-3)
2...LI NA (0-1)
2...Vera Zvonareva (0-2)
1...Marion Bartoli, Jelena Jankovic, Samantha Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki (all 0-1)

Francesca Schiavone, 2010 Roland Garros (29 years, 347 days)
Jana Novotna, 1998 Wimbledon (29 years, 9 months)
Kerry Melville-Reid, 1977 Australian Open (29 years, 5 months)
[ Li Na - 29y,3m ]
Amelie Mauresmo, 2006 Australian Open (26 years, 7 months)

[through SF]
9-3...China (Li)
9-6...Italy (Schiavone)
6-9...United States
5-9...Czech Republic
3-3...Slovak Republic
2-1...Denmark, Estonia, Netherlands, Taiwan
2-3...Great Britain
1-1...Bulgaria, India, Slovenia, South Africa
0-1...Croatia, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Kazakhstan, Latvia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Uzbekistan
0-3...Austria, Ukraine

TOP QUALIFIER: #21 Sloane Stephens/USA
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #8 Samantha Stosur/AUS
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Ekaterina Bychkova/RUS d. Lindsay Lee-Waters/USA 3-6/7-6/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #3 Vera Zvonareva/RUS d. (Q) Sabine Lisicki/GER 4-6/7-5/7-5
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): QF - #5 Francesca Schiavone/ITA d. #14 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS 1-6/7-5/7-5
FIRST WINNER: Simona Halep/ROU (def. Alla Kudryavtseva/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Shahar Peer/ISR (lost to Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP)
UPSET QUEENS: The Romanians
REVELATION LADIES: The North Americans
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Chan Yung-Jan/TPE & Nuria Llagostera-Vives/ESP (3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARDS STANDING: Iryna Bremond/FRA, Caroline Garcia/FRA & Pauline Parmentier/FRA (2nd Rd.)
MADEMOISELLE & MADAM OPPORTUNITY: #5 Francesca Schiavone/ITA & #6 Li Na/CHN (both in final)
CRASH & BURN: #2 Kim Clijsters/BEL (lost in 2nd Rd. to #114 Arantxa Rus/NED after leading 6-3/5-2 and holding 2 MP; worst slam result since 2002)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #7 Maria Sharapova, RUS (down 6-3/4-1, 2 breaks, in 2nd Rd. vs. Garcia)
JOIE DE VIVRE: Virginie Razzano/FRA

All for Day 12. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

Actually, I think Schiavone did have some "feel" for where she was going. After she told the press she was very tired--right after she went out in some tournament or other--she kind of slyly implied she was "saving it" for Paris. I was a bit worried when she said she needed to withdraw from whatever event it was, and then played it, after all. But it looks like she knew just how to take care of herself--and to mess with the rest of us.

Thu Jun 02, 10:48:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Certainly the way her results inched up with each event was a good sign. It's funny how nobody really paid much attention to it, though, or at least didn't think it was "enough" to consider her a real contender in Paris in an event everyone acknowledged was "wide open."

Ah, Francesca. Thank goodness she didn't look at 2010 as the period at the end of a sentence. This is really potentially one of the most entertaining slams finals I can remember in quite a few years. Who knew?

Well, MAYBE Schiavone. :D

Fri Jun 03, 02:59:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kevin Pondikou said...

in slightly surprised that noone thought that Schiavone would be in the glad that tennis has now become a sport that players can play into their thirties. The ranking system is now more than ever a guide rather than proof of talent.

Sat Jun 04, 06:26:00 AM EDT  

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