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Tennis

No. 1 contender Sharapova gets WTA champion Williams in French fight

Photo: Petr David Jose/AP

Defending champion Maria Sharapova hasn't beaten Serena Williams since 2004.

PARIS -- The parallels between tennis and boxing are so common and commonplace, you'd be forgiven for not knowing tennis has a lexicon all its own. Spend a set in a broadcast booth, and you'll hear relentless references to "knockout blows" and "drawing first blood," "jabs" and "getting up off the canvas." But can a line be a cliché when it's so apt? The competitors leave covered in dust, not blood, but a clay-court tennis match can be the ultimate fight.

We got still more examples of this on Court Philippe Chatrier during the women's semifinals Thursday. The main event pitted the top two WTA contenders, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. Screeching, of course, with each shot, for three sets, they slugged it out. Sharapova won the first set, outserving Azarenka and -- surprise, surprise -- looking more comfortable on the surface. Azarenka won the middle rounds, taking the second set 6-2. Sharapova recovered in the third. She served at 5-2, was broken and accumulated her poise and closed out the match 6-1, 2-6, 6-4. They have now played 13 times. Azarenka 7, Sharapova 6.

Statistically, this was not a match for the purists. There were miscast shots and scads of unforced errors and untimely breaks of serve. As is her wont, Sharapova double-faulted early and often, 11 times overall.

And yet you could make the case it was a classic, two top players in a high-stakes match, throwing haymakers, protecting territory, exploiting angles, relishing the fight. Momentum was mercurial. This is the WTA in a nutshell. If you're expecting female Roger Federers, you'll be disappointed. If you want some of the most gripping and honest and unpredictable competition in sports, pull up a chair.

In the end, Sharapova took a deep breath and won, serving a love game punctuated, appropriately, with an ace on match point. As Azarenka gamely put it after: "I'm not happy about today's [result], but it was a good fight."

NGUYEN: Sharapova-Azaranka analysis

The good news for Sharapova: She won the fight. The bad news: She now faces the WTA champion, Serena Williams, in the final. Not only has she failed to beat Williams in nearly a decade, losing 12 straight matches, but Serena also has never played better tennis, certainly not here.

"I'd be lying if [I said the losing streak] doesn't bother me," Sharapova said. "Obviously whatever I did in the past hasn't worked, so I'll have to try to do something different and hopefully it will.

"I have given myself a chance to face the favorite."

While the first semifinal was a back-and-forth battle, the second match made Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks look competitive. Williams simply flattened Sara Errani 6-0, 6-1 in 46 minutes, the shortest women's match of the tournament. It's hard to convey the level of Serena's dominance. Empirically: At one point, Serena had 27 winners to Errani's one. Anecdotally, when Errani finally won a game down 0-6, 0-3, it drew the loudest cheers of the afternoon.

NGUYEN: Williams-Errani analysis

"She played unbelievable," Errani said. "That's it."

Williams was asked after her win if she would accept that "it's soul destroying" to play against her at the moment.

"I would never say that," she said. She brushed aside her dominance over Sharapova, saying their meeting Saturday, their first at Roland Garros, is "a brand new match."

You want a back-and-forth clash? You got it. You want to see a once-in-a-generation athlete at the peak of her powers? You got that, too. And on Saturday, in our last fight of the women's tournament, the world's two best players square off.

Want to bring your earplugs, fine. But only a fool would avert their eyes.

ZACCARDI: Men's semifinals preview, predictions

Mailbag

Longtime Roger Federer fan. What's the tennis equivalent of Michael Jordan developing a go-to jump shot when the legs no longer let him take it to the rack every time down the floor? Should Federer, a la Steffi Graf (for one nanosecond when Monica Seles had her number pre-April 30, 1993), switch to two hands on the backhand? Start moonballing? Chip and charge every single return?
-- Rick Muirragui, Los Angeles

• In keeping with today's theme of individualism, this is Federer's problem. In another sport, he throttles back and becomes a designated hitter, a situational player or a player who comes off the bench to hit some shots and provide veteran leadership. He's not afforded these professional courtesies in tennis. You win or go home. You can tinker with your schedule and try to game the points system and maybe even change equipment. But, ultimately, it's you on one side of the net, another dude on the other, and one of you is winning and the other losing.

What's Federer to do? Stay healthy. Make a concerted effort to shorten points. Try a bigger racket. Cut the most physically taxing events from his calendar. Maybe. But at this stage, is he really going to change his fundamentals, be it his backhand or his entire philosophy? Probably not.

Do you think Federer, assuming he plays to age 35 and maintains his squeaky-clean image/endorsement portfolio, can become the first billionaire tennis player?
-- Phillip, Manila

• I think Federer plays until he's 35 because he can still compete for Slams (and a gold medal in Rio). If he becomes a billionaire, it will be a happy consequence, not a motivation.

Am I correct in assuming that there are more than 4,000 players on the ATP and WTA? If that is the case, wouldn't the top 1 percent be considered the "elite players" of the tour? That's players ranked Nos. 1-40. So what label would we call the top 10 on each tour? The elite of the elite? And what would be call the Big Three on each tour? (Still not ready to add Andy Murray to the "Big" list until he wins a second major.)
-- Bruce, Jacksonville, Fla.

• Restrict it to everyone who will make a six-figure income -- i.e., surviving by the time you take out travel costs -- and we're talking 300. So the Big Three is the elite and rest are the 99 percenters.

After watching Federer and Stan Wawrinka lose, a sad conclusion: Looks like this is the end of the one-handed backhand, no matter how beautiful it is to watch. Agree?
-- H Peter Josiger, Sao Paulo

• Wait, the other day we were rejoicing that eight of the 16 remaining players zinged the one-hander. Now it's back on life support? The shot doesn't work against high-bouncing spin. You think Federer has a rough record against Rafael Nadal? Wawrinka has played him 10 times and has yet to take a set!

In my best Sheldon Cooper imitation, your comment from yesterday on the WTA and grunting/screeching (see below) is sarcasm, right?

"I'm sure if the WTA thought that grunting was offending the fans and hurting business, the courageous administrators would stand up to the players -- even if the top players were some of the most grievous offenders -- and demand change."
-- Lilas Pratt, Marietta, Ga.

• Yes, it was sarcastic.

"I'm sure if the WTA thought that grunting was offending the fans and hurting business, the courageous administrators would stand up to the players -- even if the top players were some of the most grievous offenders -- and demand change."

I'm going to go ahead and assume you were being intentionally facetious here. We've already seen how spineless the WTA is regarding the shrieking issue. ("We'll address it with the junior players, but not the current players.")
-- Gopal, Houston

• Yes, it was intentionally facetious.

Why don't you show some respect for your viewing audience by wearing a necktie when you're on TV? With all your great qualifications, I would think that you would choose to portray a commensurate image.
-- Patrick Selnes, Burlington, Ontario

• This is my issue with TV. It's not simply that it's subjective; it's that the very traits that appeal to Viewer A repel and offend Viewer B. Me? I feel like a necktie is a bit much for a sporting event. You don't want to wear cargo shorts and a T-shirt, but a tie to discuss clay-court tennis seems a little incongruous. Maybe we'll visit the local thrift shop, I mean, um, er, the Zegna store, before Wimbledon.

Tommy Robredo won three consecutive matches after being two sets down. This has to be a record. Do you know of any instances in the past?
-- Hareesh, Montville, N.J.

• First since Henri Cochet, Wimbledon, 1927.

Shots, Miscellany

• Ted Robinson and John McEnroe are calling the Nadal-Novak Djokovic semfinal for Tennis Channel on Friday. Rennae Stubbs and I are on the desk. Tune in at 7 a.m. ET.

Good to see our old friend Chuck Culpepper weigh in on tennis.

The tennis impressions kid is back.

• Grzegorz of Kutno, Poland: "I was reminded how I had missed Jelena Jankovic's presence in later stages of big tournaments: The slow-motion camera recorded that Jankovic was actually smiling (if not laughing) while chasing -- unsuccessfully -- a perfect drop shot hit by Sharapova. As much as I like Sharapova's fighting spirit on the court, I also simply adore Jankovic's attitude, both when she is arguing with 'invisible somebody' in the crowd and when she is enjoying the game so visibly and charmingly."

• Joshua, Portland, Ore.: "You shouldn't let your epistolary friends get away with smearing the truth about grunting as if it were a questionable mark in damp red clay! Reader Helle Hansen says of men's grunting, 'It always seems to be because of the effort put into the shot.' This is patently false. There are loads of men who make no sound until after the ball has left their racket and often not until the ball is crossing the net. Besides which, it hardly seems to matter why a player makes noise -- if making noise is a hindrance, it's a hindrance even if he makes it 'honestly' through effort. The women's sounds are more annoying only because of their higher pitch, which is simply more likely to aggravate the human ear, not because they are in any other way dissimilar from dudely grunting. Indeed, to my ears at least, the sounds the men make are far more obscene."

• Caroline Wozniacki has committed to the New Haven Open in August, joining No. 5 Sara Errani, No. 7 Petra Kvitova, No. 8 Angelique Kerber and No. 13 Marion Bartoli.

• Donald H. of Memphis: "One reader in your last mailbag suggested that Philipp Kohlschreiber might be moonlighting as Kevin Sussman. I have been waiting for someone to notice the uncanny resemblance between Richard Gasquet and DNC Chairman Howard Dean. Every time I look at Dean, I want to inquire about his tennis game."

Pippa Middleton to write about Wimbledon for Vanity Fair

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