Thursday, June 2, 2011

Li and Schiavone to contend for French Open title

There's still one more match to be played at the French Open, and I don't what the Maria Sharapova Channel (otherwise known as ESPN2) commentators are going to do. Mary Joe Fernandez and Cliff Drysdale have done everything but step onto the court and give Sharapova the trophy, and now--oops--she's out of the tournament. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that what I'm saying is in no way intended to denigrate the Russian player; I've maintained all along that she would one day return to form. But the non-stop Sharapova-boosting between the two commentators has no place in broadcasting.

This isn't the first time that Fernandez and Drysdale have forgotten that other players are in the tournament (and winning), but it may be the most outrageous.

Which brings me to Li Na, the no-nonsense player who has now defeated Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova. The deeper she has gone into the tournament, the more consistent the Chinese number 1 has become. Today, with the wind gusting around her (again), Li went with the wind, and took advantage of a flustered Sharapova whose only attempt to solve her service problem was to hit harder.

Li went up a quick break in the first set, as Sharapova made a number of unforced errors, including double faults. The 7th seed did break back a couple of times, however, and one of those times was when Li served for the set at 5-3. But Sharapova continued to have problems with her serve, and was broken again. Li won the first set when Sharapova tried to hit a smash, and sent the ball into the net.

The wind continued to gust--a lot. Li began the next set with a 40-0 service game, but when Sharapova made four straight points, it looked as though--just maybe--the  match could be turning. Li saved three break points, but on the fourth, she double-faulted. Sharapova then held at love, which had to have given her some confidence. Both players struggled with the wind, and Li double-faulted twice at 1-3. To make things worse, she had to hit an extra ball because of an incorrect line call. But she held.

Continuing to toss the ball high during her serve, Sharapova double-faulted twice when she served at 4-3. She was broken, and then Li held with a big serve. At 5-all, Li held at love, and then had two match points on her opponent's serve. She capitalized on the first one when Sharapova double-faulted for the tenth time.

Several years ago, before the shoulder injury, Sharapova had an outstanding second serve. You wouldn't  have known that today, as she seemingly ignored the fickle nature of the wind and tried to go for so much on so  many second serves. And without a good service game, the Russian was not going to be able to do much about Li's through-the-wind ball-striking, and her ability to expose Sharapova's limitations when it comes to moving on clay. Hitting fearlessly on both sides, Li was able to move Sharapova around and dictate points when she needed to.

In the other semifinal, which I found more enjoyable to watch, defending champion Francesca Schiavone faced Marion Bartoli. This match was a contrast of styles, and a coming together of two very spirited competitors--one a clay expert, the other only recently finding comfort on the surface. It was a good match, but no matter how many angles the ball-stinging Bartoli found, Schiavone was there--at the baseline, at the net, and all over the place. The Italian put on a display of her signature spins and slices, and it was just a bit much for Bartoli to manage. Schiavone won the match, 6-3, 6-3.

In both matches, the unforced error count was close to even (though Sharapova made five more than Li), but Li and Schiavone hit twice as many winners as their opponents.

As far as I'm concerned, this is almost a dream final. Two of the greatest personalities on the tour--both of them witty, authentic and hilariously philosophical--will bring more than enough color to the match. They will also bring a lot of talent, and a win by either of them will be historic. With these two, the interviews alone would be worth the viewing time. Schiavone, of course, "wasn't supposed" to have much chance to defend her title. Li, the Australian Open runner-up, "wasn't supposed" to be able to play on clay. But look what they have done

I say that it is "almost" a dream final because there is indeed one drawback: One of them will lose. When the finalists are Li Na and Francesca Schiavone, that's a hard fact for a fan to face.


Wayne said...

Well, well ... who would have predicted this final two weeks ago ? Looking forward to it.

I sensed the Chatrier patrons were not sure what they were watching at times in the first semi-final. Hard-court tennis played on a slippery surface with the wind playing havoc. The second semi-final Francesca Schiavone gave them a clay-court masterclass. If the defending champion's serve and forehand are functioning in Saturday's final, there will only be one winner.

Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, it was a bit maddening to have Li one or two games from reaching her second straight slam final, and "Cliffy and Mary" seeming to think the story was that Sharapova would be going for the Career Slam should she win the match. At that point, it seemed a long shot and the lead storyline had sorta changed.

Of course, I suspect the chimps in the ESPN control room were also probably reminding them to mention that the "stakes" of the match revolved around Sharapova... since "that's all anyone cares about." Maybe those banana shakes went to their heads and they got brain freeze. :)

Wayne said...

Chatrier has never shared ESPN-type Sharapova adulation. Mild hostility in earlier days has given way to grudging respect. The patrons know a thing or two about style: like their tennis played with style and flair. Francesca Schiavone on the other hand grunts like a 'mare on heat'* and they love her.

* apologies in advance for this rather coarse analogy. Walking from the Wimbledon carpark one year, could hear Franny half a mile away, saw some horses grazing in a field and this instant analogy kind of stuck.

Diane said...

Fran's grunts seem to get louder as she gets older, but she still has a way before she reaches "Monica level"!

Anonymous said...

Brava Francesca! LOVE her game -- it's called (gasp) tennis folks! She brings it to the court with so much passion and flair.

I made it through the first semi with the help of a little Puccini to stay awake. Happy for Li to make it through though.


Diane said...

I enjoy watching Schiavone more than any player on the tour. There is one player every generation who, for me, is the artist-or the dancer--on the court. With Mauresmo and Henin, we actually got two. Others I couldn't stop watching were Sabatini, Goolagong, and the great Hana Mandlikova. People say that Maria Bueno also fell into that category.