Friday, June 9, 2023

Who can penetrate the power of a Warrior Princess? (Answer: A Czech, of course)

Yesterday, I wrote that both Karolina Muchova and Beatriz Haddad Maia are very talented players who have had to deal with way more than their share of injuries. When you're injured several times, and especially when surgery is involved, it's very hard to maintain momentum on the tour. Had their bodies not been so vulnerable, both players would undoubtedly have higher rankings. 

Today, in the first semifinal, spectators and viewers got a chance to see Muchova in full flight, as she battled against 2nd seed (and Australian Open champion) Aryna Sabalenka. This match had everything--great serving, stinging ground strokes, serve-and-volley, intriguing net play, speed-sliding at wicked angles, cramping, and all manner of thrills. However, Sabalenka, who is known as the Warrior Princess, ultimately looked across the net and saw a warrior princess powered by laser beams.

Muchova held a set point at 5-4 in the opening set, but failed to convert it. The set went to a tiebreak, which Muchova won with a screaming backhand down the line. She then immediately broke in the second set, but Sabalenka broke back, and that set also went to a tiebreak, which Sabalenka won. The third set was so tense, I could almost feel its vibration through my television screen. There was some additional drama, as Muchova's leg began cramping, and Sabalenka kept changing her racket because she wasn't satisfied with the strong tension.

The end appeared near when Muchova served at 2-5, 0-30. Sabalenka would have a match point later in that game, but she failed to convert it. She then served for the match at 5-3, but Muchova broke her, and that was when "tense" became a real thing. At 5-all, the 2nd seed, already struggling with the production of unforced errors, double-faulted twice and was ultimately broken again. Suddenly, it was the Czech serving for the match at 6-5. She held at love, providing a stunning conclusion to an extremely high quality match.

Commentators love to talk about "weapons," but extremely important things like movement, shot variety, and court intelligence don't count in that category (presumably, they are too "feminine"). Maybe, for a laser-powered warrior princess, that's an advantage, because the opponent doesn't see the "attack" coming. (Justine Henin and Aga Radwanska could provide lengthy tutorials on this subject.) Muchova threw everything she had at Sabalenka, and--most notably--used her backhand slice to great advantage. Her second serve was very effective (something we don't see that often), and she converted all five of her break opportunities.

Commentators like to call Muchova's brand of tennis "old-school," but, in fact, it's just plain excellent tennis. Not every player can compete against a big hitter, but a smart player with a good serve can.

Last year, Muchova turned her ankle in the third round at Roland Garros and had to retire from her match against Amanda Anisimova. Once again, injury stopped her momentum. Now she's projected to return to the top 20, and--should she win the tournament--she'll be in the top 10. The Czech player, unseeded in Paris, arrived with a 4-0 record against top 3 players, and--as of yesterday--she made that a 5-0 record.

The other semifinal featured defending champion and top seed Iga Swiatek and Beatriz Haddad Maia, who--by the time she stepped onto Court Philippe-Chatrier--had already spent almost thirteen hours on the Roland Garros courts. Haddad Maia has physical and mental resources that sometimes defy belief. She's also a really good tennis player, but nothing that the Brazlian had going for her was enough to stop Swiatek. 

It started well for the 14th seed--she broke Swiatek at love. And while Swiatek went on to win the set 6-2, anyone familiar with Haddad Maia knew that the second set would be more complicated. It was. The Brazilian broke early, and remained steady, while Swiatek looked increasingly uncomfortable on the court. In a "normal" match, one could assume that a third set was forthcoming. But Swiatek has looked uncomfortable and out of sorts before, and each time, she has found ways to treat the discomfort as a mere annoyance, rather than a hindrance to her game.

Still, though, a third set seemed to be forthcoming when Haddad Maia went up 5-3 in the tiebreak. But she failed to execute a volley, and missed her chance to have set points. She continued to fight, though--as Haddad Maia always does--but the world number 1 won the tiebreak, 9-7. And while Swiatek has yet to drop a set at the French Open, that second set against Haddad Maia was extremely competitive. Swiatek's victory also assures that she holds on to her number 1 ranking.

Paths to the final:

Iga Swiatek (1)
round 1--def. Cristina Bucsa
round 2--def. Claire Liu
round 3--def. Wang Xinyu
round of 16--def. Lesia Tsurenko
quarterfinals--def. Coco Gauff (6)
semifinals--def. Beatriz Haddad Maia (14)

Karolina Muchova
round 1--def. Maria Sakkari (8)
round 2--def. Nadia Podoroska
round 3--def. Irina Camelia Begu (27)
round of 16--def. Elina Avanesyan (LL)
quarterfinals--def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
semifinals--def. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

In the meantime, Miyu Kato and Tim Puetz won the mixed doubles title, which had to feel especially good to Kato, who had to forfeit a women's doubles match when a ball that she hit landed on a ballgirl. Kato and Puetz defeated Bianca Andreescu and Michael Venus for the title.

And--surprise!--the women's wheelchair finalists are Diede De Groot and Yui Kamiji. Yet again. They are seeded 1 and 2, respectively. In wheelchair doubles competition, top seeds Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane will play De Groot and Maria Florencia Moreno for the title.

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