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Labeled “the least dwarfish of the dwarfs” by none other than ourselves, Sam Stosur stood as tall as she ever has in the quarterfinals by shrugging off mid-match adversity to outlast the 12-time Slam champion.  As we munch our corbeau à la française (“crow” sounds much more glamorous in French), we marvel at the seventh seed’s poise and maturity, so uncommon recently in the women’s game.  Unruffled by a edgy third set against Henin on Monday, the Australian displayed quiet determination on Wednesday to overcome an even edgier situation in which she twice had to hold serve to stay in the tournament—no mean feat against one of the WTA’s finest returners.  Almost any other player would have crumbled after the ugly, bizarre loss of serve when the match was on her racket late in the second set, or after the lopsided second-set tiebreak, or at match point in the decider; surviving all three of those potentially maddening plot twists, Stosur confirmed her position among the sport’s elite.  Props it is, and a player profile after the red dust finally settles upon the battlefield of Roland Garros.

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Before it does, however, a bit of business awaits between the first Italian woman to reach a Slam semifinal and a Russian who hasn’t reached a Slam final since 2004.  In a Wimbledon semifinal against Serena that became the WTA match of 2009, Dementieva demonstrated how dangerous she can be when confident and striking the ball with conviction.  It would be difficult to find a game more balanced than hers, but her fragile mind and her serve have held her back on the major stages despite a heartwarming triumph at the 2008 Olympics.  Struggling with injuries to both legs this fortnight, she exploited a reasonably placid draw to reach the final four after sandwiching three-set wins over Wozniak and Petrova around a routine victory over a South African qualifier.  Dropping the first set of her first match, Schiavone has enjoyed a sensational 10-set winning streak against respectable foes such as Kirilenko and the admittedly hobbled Wozniacki.  Will she be able to feast upon another top-10 opponent with injury-hampered mobility?  Shot for shot, Dementieva has the edge in every department except at the net, where the Italian delivered gems this fortnight as delicious as her favorite spaghetti carbonara.  Although the Russian leads their head-to-head 6-4, the headline here is not that she holds the advantage but that the Italian has scored repeated successes against a player who generally has garnered much greater accomplishments.  The Italian’s distinctive, artful style can fluster powerful, erratic opponents, for she took two sets off Venus this year in separate meetings, but it’s surprising that Dementieva’s consistency and baseline depth have not solved Schiavone’s riddle more regularly.  Since they possess two of the weakest serves in the top 20, we expect many close service games and very few short points.  (Find somewhere comfortable to watch because you might be there for a while.)  If Dementieva is healthy, an intriguing contest should develop in which the Italian will seek to unnerve the Russian with unexpected shot selection and tireless ball retrieval, while the Russian will attempt to pin down the Italian behind the baseline under a barrage of deep groundstrokes.  Will the physical or the psychological dimension of the game prevail?  We admire Schiavone’s feistiness, ingenuity, and love for the sport, but we think that her fairytale ends here.

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With all due respect to Schiavone and Dementieva, the winner of the top half’s semifinal will be distinctly favored to take home the hardware on Sunday.  Since 2007, Jankovic and Stosur have combined to reach five French Open semifinals, a statistic that reveals their comfort level on a surface from which most top women recoil in disdain.  Pursuing her second Slam final, the Serb proved a hapless foil to Henin’s brilliance three years ago and squandered manifold opportunities against Ivanovic a year later.  (That situation greatly resembles the context on Thursday, for in 2008 as well the winner of that semifinal knew that they would enter the final as the considerable favorite.)  Will the third time be the charm?  This fortnight, Jankovic has looked calm, focused, and confident in comfortable wins over recent nemeses Hantuchova and Shvedova, although she did struggle to hold serve against the Kazakh on Wednesday.  She won’t be able to initiate a similar break-fest against Stosur and thus can’t afford to be so profligate with her own service games, but she poses a far different challenge than did the consummate shotmakers Henin and Serena.  In order to reach a debut Slam final, the Australian will need to stay patient and slowly construct opportunities rather than swinging for the lines with the first forehand that she sees.  Jankovic’s movement may require Stosur to win points two or three times on this slow surface, a task to which she was equal in their Miami meeting but not in their Indian Wells clash.  If this semifinal is decided by short points and winners, it’ll go to the Aussie; if long rallies and unforced errors set the tone, we like Jelena’s chances, for she can be almost as stingy as Nadal in that regard.  Stosur brings not only a massive momentum surge but a sturdier mind to the task before her, while the Serb brings a more balanced game and more natural clay-court movement.  A year and a day ago in the same round, Kuznetsova kept her sanity just long enough and weathered the bombs from Stosur’s serve and forehand to prevail through superior variety and athleticism.  We expect a three-set  encounter to determine who will play for (and probably collect) all the marbles on Sunday, with Jankovic just a shade too sturdy in the end.  The Serb won’t have many more chances to collect that elusive Slam, which might lend her the urgency that she needs to keep her eyes on the prize. 

Enjoy the first day of semifinals as Roland Garros slides towards the final weekend!

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