There are now four women standing in Paris, and each carries a storyline dramatic enough to make her potential championship a very big piece of sports news:
Marion Bartoli, seeded number 11: Bartoli is the number 1 French player, and no Frenchwoman has won the French Open since 2000, when Mary Pierce became the champion. Bartoli has reached a major final before; she stunned the likes of Jelena Jankovic and Justine Henin at Wimbledon in 2007, but could not get past Venus Williams. So many times, Bartoli has played her way to the the quarterfinals and beyond all kinds of big tournaments, but has had to retire (or play in pain) because of injury or illness. So much attention has been paid to Bartoli's physical fragility and unorthodox persona, both fans and members of the tennis media have sometimes failed to recognize the high quality of her tennis.
Hitting two-handed on both sides with an extra-long racquet, Bartoli is an expert returner of serve. She can find laser-like angles, and on days when her serve is good, it's very good, and she's hard to beat. But the Frenchwoman, like several other players on the tour, also has bad days with regard to her serve.
This year, instead of exhibiting the usual fears that French players have at the French Open, Bartoli has let the crowd carry her to greater emotional depths. Known for not liking to play on clay courts, the world number 11 has decided to embrace the experience instead. Bartoli, whose quirkiness makes her all the more charming, has a fighting spirit that can be dampened only be a physical issue; let's hope she stays healthy.
Francesca Schiavone, seeded number 5: Schiavone, the defending champion, won the tournament last year as the 17th seed. Given her seeding, her record and her age, her ascension to major championship level was one of the great sports stories of the last several years. For years, Schiavone would reach finals and not be able to close, but her mentality changed late in her career. She has not had a very good season, but also, at one point, she pretty much came out and said she was saving her energy for the French Open. Her defeat (after a really bad start) of an aggressive Anastasia Pavlyuchenova in the quarterfinals was a testament to her overwhelming sense of survival and her mental and physical grit.
Should Schiavone, who is just weeks shy of her 31st birthday, defend her championship, we will have to find new adjectives to describe the win, because--in some ways--the feat would be even greater than the one she pulled off last year. One of the great personalities of the tour, Schiavone can do everything, and she constantly reminds us that tennis can be an art, even though most of the players around her have opted for craft only.
Li Na, seeded number 6: Earlier this year, Li became the first Chinese woman to reach the final of a major when she made an outstanding run to the last match of the Australian Open. She is now the first Chinese woman to reach the semifinals of the French Open. Should she win the tournament, Li would become truly legendary. Like Bartoli and Maria Sharapova, the Chinese number 1 is not known for having clay court skills, yet here she is, in the semifinals. What makes her run ever more remarkable is that Li's career took a big turn downward after the Australian Open. She has recently hired a new coach, and the change appears to have worked for her.
Maria Sharapova, seeded number 7: I wish I had a nice, crisp $10 bill for every person who said Sharapova's career was "over" and she should retire. Hello! She's back, and she's in the semifinals of the one tournament observers said she couldn't win back when she was considered one of the tour's greats. Though she still can't slide, Sharapova has improved her movement on clay courts, and is now a genuine threat in Paris. Were she to win the French Open, she would not only complete her comeback in the most dramatic way possible--she would also have a Career Slam.
Some other observations: It just so happens that all four semifinalists range from witty to outright comic, so--no matter the outcome--we can look forward to some wonderful speeches and press conferences. I especially like the personality makeup of the final four.
And now, a plea to Tennis Channel and ESPN commentators: Stop making a "girl drama" out of the fact that Li's former coach left her to coach Sharapova, and now Li and Sharapova have to play each other. What are they, eleven? That Li Na is so emotionally fragile, she's made it all the way to the French Open semifinals.