Na Li - 2011 French Open - Day Twelve

Schiavone vs. Li:  After 40 million Chinese watched their countrywoman defuse Sharapova in the semifinals, how many will watch her pursue the accomplishment that eluded her in Melbourne?  On that occasion, Li dominated the clearly favored Clijsters through the first set and a half, only to flinch when the title loomed just ten points ahead.  Having healed those scars over the ensuing months, she now hopes to avoid the fate of Zvonareva, who crumbled in horrific fashion after reaching her second straight Slam final.  A far fiercer competitor than that Russian, Li carved an arduous path through the title through three top-10 opponents, whom most considered contenders more legitimate than China’s “golden flower.”  In deep trouble against Kvitova on two separate occasions, the world #7 fought with her trademark tenacity to survive that three-setter before muting the roaring offenses of Azarenka and Sharapova.  While not depleting her energy too deeply, this fearsome draw should have primed her to dispatch the finalist from the top half, a much less intimidating persona than her previous victims.  Anything can happen at a major, to be sure, but it probably won’t on this occasion….

Or so we thought last year when Stosur clawed past Henin and Serena in dramatic three-setters before dismantling former #1 Jankovic.  When a smooth path to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen seemingly lay open before her, though, the Aussie faltered under the inspired assault of last year’s champion and this year’s finalist.  No statuesque Russian but a fiery Italian, Schiavone deserves perhaps even more credit for reaching her second Slam final than for that first, implausible breakthrough.  Many are the one-Slam wonders who litter the annals of tennis history, so a second major title would raise her a notch in the respect not only of her peers but of posterity.  And Schiavone confronted a potentially challenging assortment of foes earlier in the tournament, from former nemesis Jankovic to a ball-bruising Russian eleven years her junior.  Like her Saturday opponent, she battled through that turbulence and gradually elevated her form as the tournament progressed, eventually showcasing her artistry to its fullest against a befuddled Bartoli.  Against the Chinese star, she should eschew the dipping slices that land near Li’s relatively low strike zone but instead craft higher-bouncing strokes with heavy spin.  Having relied upon her penetrating groundstrokes to neutralize much more potent offenses, the world #7 can parry any of Schiavone’s thrusts with little difficulty.  A match of cleanly struck strokes and rhythmic rallies will tilt to her advantage, so the defending champion must make it her mission to disrupt that rhythm with all of the guile at her disposal.

En route to last year’s final, Schiavone comfortably overcame her opponent on Saturday after having lost two of their three previous meetings.  Never have they met on a stage of this magnitude, however, so history offers scant guidance.  Despite the contrasts in styles between the artful, all-court versatility of the Italian and the baseline impenetrability of the Chinese star, these veterans share a competitive willpower that has not withered but crystallized with the years.  Rather than the heaviest hitters, stingiest defenders, or most glamorous champions in the WTA, Schiavone and Li are survivors of the sport’s most prestigious tournament on the sport’s most demanding surface.  But only one can survive their duel on Saturday.

Roger Federer Rafael Nadal of Spain consoles Roger Federer of Switzerland during the trophy presentation after his men's final match during day fourteen of the 2009 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on  February 1, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Roger Federer;Rafael Nadal

Nadal vs. Federer:  For more than two years, the final image of their rivalry in major finals remained the unseemly, unsettling spectacle of Nadal comforting a weeping Federer at the 2009 Australian Open.  In those two years, much has changed to transform the landscape of their rivalry, especially from the Swiss grandmaster’s perspective.  When they met in Melbourne, Federer had not yet conquered Roland Garros to complete his career Slam and looked increasingly distant from accomplishing that goal.  Nor had he yet broken the all-time record held by Sampras that he had targeted throughout a pressure-soaked career.  As much the GOAT as if horns sprouted from his temples, Federer should enter this fourth French Open final against his archrival without the mentality of a Don Quixote hopelessly tilting at windmills.  The 2009 Roland Garros champion can relax his shoulders and breathe more freely, secure in the sense that no loss can tarnish his legacy, however bleak.  Causing his confidence to soar was his rousing four-set collision with Djokovic, from which Federer gained the satisfaction of avenging defeats to the Serb at the previous two majors and halting his bid to become #1.  Still far from that pinnacle himself, Federer unleashed some of his fiercest forehands and silkiest movement in the two key tiebreaks, proving that his champion’s spirit had lain dormant rather than extinct.

On the other hand, Federer does not find himself alone among players who completed the career Slam since his last major final against Nadal.  Constructing a foundation for his own legacy, the Spaniard enjoyed as sensational a season last year as any in the Swiss legend’s career; just two days after his 25th birthday, he can vault into double digits of Slam titles.  As he noted after one of his shaky early wins, a sixth Roland Garros title would not greatly alter our perceptions of him.  Surely relieved to encounter someone other than Djokovic in the final, Nadal has gained considerable momentum from consecutive straight-sets victories over Soderling and Murray, both of whom have troubled him at majors.  Those wins revealed a Rafa more confident and determined than since his Melbourne injury, although still less than immaculate when holding serve.  The Spaniard never has lost a major final to Federer anywhere other than Wimbledon, and he revived his clay mastery over him with a comeback victory in the Madrid semifinals.  Moreover, despite his self-confessed struggle to maintain “calm,” Nadal remains the best competitor in the ATP at decisive moments and momentous occasions, so a match with the #1 ranking at stake should kindle his competitive flame.

From a tactical perspective, the archrivals hold no secrets from each other.  The key shot in this final, therefore, belongs to a backhand that Federer ebulliently called “unbelievable” in a recent burst of self-appreciation but that now must withstand the unparalleled pressure of Nadal’s curling cross-court forehand.  If his backhand remains as reliable and timely as in the semifinal, the five-time Roland Garros champion may have a contest on his hands.  If Federer finds himself forced to run around that shot to hit forehands, by contrast, all of us know how that narrative will unfold.  With less at stake for both men than in any of their previous Slam finals, they have another opportunity to awaken the memories of years past before dusk descends upon the chapter that they have written together.

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