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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

French Open: Four Routes to History

After two days of heated comebacks and astonishing routs, the final four competitors have been decided for the women's French Open. Though a grand slam title is the ultimate achievement for any tennis player, these four ladies each have their own special reason for seeking the crown of Roland Garros. Here's a sneak peak at why Schiavone, Bartoli, Na and Sharapova hold history on their rackets:

Schiavone - The Repeat Slam
Who would have ever thought the Italian veteran could pull off the biggest tournament upset at the age of 29? Who thought she could have a chance to do it again at the age of 30? Francesca Schiavone has jumped into her second French Open semifinal with her hopes set on defending her 2010 championship run. Her match against Pavyluchenkova in the quarterfinals showed tennis fans everywhere that with enough heart, age is no question. 

After being drubbed 6-1 in the first set and trailing 4-1 in the second, it seemed Schiavone's valiant run was at an end, but if you really thought that, you don't know Schiavone. As Pavylunchenkova tightened, Schiavone began to light up, striking winners and snapping fingers as she hopped around the court in delight. She unraveled Pavlyuchenkova's lead and won the second set 7-5, then took a 5-1 lead in the third. The Russian teenager was not to be outdone, however, surging with a comeback of her own to 5-5. At this crucial point in the match, it was all a matter of mental toughness, and like you would expect, experience and feel prevailed over youth and risk. Schiavone regrouped from the four game losing streak and won back-to-back games for a 7-5 final set.

Pulling off the Repeat Slam would be a stunning victory for Schiavone as her career tapers off, but will she really consider retirement anytime soon as a staple champion at Roland Garros? It seems Schiavone's game has matured with age, and regardless of her results here, I expect she'll be around for quite awhile.

Bartoli - The Home Slam
Marion Bartoli's journey to the semifinals has been the most surprising of the remaining four women. The two-handed scrambler overwhelmed 2009 French champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, in their quarterfinal meeting to advance to her first semi at Roland Garros.

As the final French player left in the draw, the Parisian crowd rests all of their hope on Bartoli's shoulders. So far, she has risen tot he occasion, but perhaps the weight is not all that heavy when the crowd is in full support of their countrywoman. It's always interesting to hear contrasting reactions of the fans who erupt into thunderous cheers for each of Bartoli's points and then faintly applaud the winners of her opponent. The French Open has not seen a home-town champion since Mary Pierce in 2000 and not since the 60's before that. Bartoli could be next.

Marion has played some of her best tennis to advance this far and will surely give Schiavone a good fight. With flat shots, big cheers and her over-zealous warmups, Bartoli might just have what it takes to make us believe in the impossible.

Na - The Asian Slam
Li Na has become the face of Chinese tennis, igniting fans with deep grand slam runs. As the Australian Open runner-up, we all expected great things form the world no. 7, but were disappointed by a streak of first round losses. But here's Na again, giving us something to cheer about.

Just when her opponents break her and you think the set is about to slip away, Na ups her game and fights like a pitbull. Errors fade out of her game and suddenly she strikes winners from both sides—her whipping cross court forehand causing serious damage and opening the court up if her opponents find a way to retrieve it. This was the fate of Victoria Azarenka, the once-upon-a-time favorite for this year's French Open title. When Na lead 7-5 5-2, that fairytale never seemed so distant. Sure enough, Na's consistency and depth kept Azarenka pushed back beyond her comfort zone and before she could retaliate, Li Na's lead was insurmountable.

A championship victory at Roland Garros for Li Na would spark pandemonium across the Asian tennis world. To be the first Chinese grand slam winner is surely Li Na's ultimate goal, but it would be more than a win for her; it would be a celebration for a culture which has been waiting so long.

Sharapova - The Career Slam
The last woman to advance to the semifinals was Maria Sharapova, the glamorous blonde Russian who has been clubbing her way back into the spotlight. After suffering a serious shoulder injury at the end of 2008, the 3-time grand slam champion has struggled to find her form. Just when you thought you could count her out, Maria's back, and looking as promising as ever.

There's not much you can say about the severe routing Sharapova performed against her quarterfinal opponent, Andrea Petkovic. From the very beginning it was all Maria. No matter how many game points Petkovic earned, Sharapova refused to drop a game, punishing the red clay with winners and zipping fireballs across the lines. The same can be said for the second set, though Petkovic seemed to find more of a rhythm. Regardless, it was Sharapova's match, taking it at 6-0 6-3.

Winning the French Open would complete Maria Sharapova's pursuit for the "Career Slam" honor. For those that don't know, this would mean she has won each of the four grand slams in her tennis career. While the red clay surface of Roland Garros has been Maria's greatest fear throughout time, the self-proclaimed "cow on ice" seems to have found her legs. She may not slide and she may not make clay tennis look pretty, but it's just another day at work when Sharapova's playing well, and she'll bring home the wins regardless of the surface.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor


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