Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Eleven

Sharapova vs. Li:  The youngest semifinalist at Roland Garros, Sharapova has reached more Slam semifinals than all of the remaining women combined.  Maria may find that experience vital when she encounters a veteran seeking to emulate Zvonareva’s feat from last year in following her maiden Slam final with an immediate sequel.  Carving a winding route through the thorniest quarter of the draw, Li has earned this opportunity with valiant victories over top-10 opponents Kvitova and Azarenka, both considered contenders for this title.  Scarcely scarred but rather buttressed by those battles, the Chinese star has unleashed outstanding performances in each of her two previous Slam semifinals.  Succumbing to Serena in two tiebreaks at the 2010 Australian Open, she erased that disappointment a year later with a brilliant comeback after facing match point against Wozniacki.  Aligned against yet another opponent who has held the top ranking, Li can gain confidence from having won her last two encounters with Sharapova and five of their last seven sets.  Once mired in a five-match losing streak against the Russian, the sixth seed may have shifted the momentum in their rivalry after a three-set loss to her two French Opens ago.  But another interpretation would attribute those recent successes in part to Maria’s post-surgery struggles with serve and motivation—struggles that seemingly have receded over the last few months.

Among the keys to Sharapova’s fortnight, her fickle serve has crystallized into a state approaching its former menace.  Less an ace machine than the preamble to a terminal blow from a groundstroke, Maria’s point-starting shot has trapped opponents in defensive positions that expose broad swathes of the court to the rest of her artillery.  In direct proportion to her serve has mounted her confidence, elevated by the Rome title and essential to battering through this penultimate obstacle.   Throughout her earlier rounds, the three-time major champion showcased her ability to pivot on a neutral shot in the center of the court and slash a viciously angled laser towards a corner.  In order to keep the Russian at bay, Li must target the baseline more than the sidelines while waiting for the opportunity to reverse direction in cross-court rallies.  Few players absorb and redirect pace more adeptly than the compact, balanced sixth seed, whose best chance lies in exposing Sharapova’s uncertain footwork and movement.  If Maria can seize control with massive first strikes from her serve and return, though, an imposing task will confront the Chinese star.

Hovering above both combatants are divergent types of pressure.  Whereas a billion compatriots rest their hopes of a first Slam champion on Li’s shoulders, Sharapova must free her mind from the magnitude of what might loom ahead, instead focusing on one scorching groundstroke at a time against an opponent whose intensity evokes her own relentlessness.

Bartoli vs. Schiavone:  In an unexpected edition of the transalpine rivalry, the defending champion confronts a home hope whom few expected to survive the first week.  Having dropped her first set of the tournament to the unheralded Tatishvili, Bartoli hopes to duplicate what Schiavone achieved after losing the first set of her Roland Garros campaign last year.  In her only previous Slam semifinal, the pugnacious Frenchwoman swept past seven-time Slam champion Henin without showing any flickers of doubt on the grandest stage of all, Wimbledon.  Escaping consecutive three-setters against Zvonareva and Jankovic in the previous two rounds, Schiavone will need to refresh her depleted energies as she prepares for an opponent who has extended her to three sets in four of their five previous meetings.  The Italian ultimately prevailed on all but one of those occasions, however, and the clay where they never have clashed should illustrate her multifaceted game to even greater effect.  Comfortable in all areas of the court, Schiavone should attempt to draw the baseline-bound Bartoli into the forecourt on awkward terms, where an artfully located passing shot or lob can fluster her.  Nevertheless, the defending champion must beware of offering the Frenchwoman too many opportunities to attack a mid-court ball, for she excels at finishing points.  Penetrating the court with low lasers at distinctive angles, the eleventh seed will aim to preserve her focus and timing against the defending champion’s array of unpredictably darting spins and slices.

During her quarterfinal with Pavlyuchenkova, spectators witnessed the best and worst of Schiavone.  First emerged the indefatigable competitive flair that enabled her to crawl out of a deep quagmire, but then surfaced the wandering mind that threw her youthful opponent a lifeline as the Italian squandered a double-break lead in the final set.  Against the more seasoned, opportunistic Bartoli, such a lapse could have proved fatal.  Among the defining traits of champions is their ability to deliver the coup de grace, a skill with which Schiavone must reacquaint herself if she plans to pursue a second straight title in Paris on Saturday.