Francesca Schiavone (left) and Li Na (right) both imposed their strengths flawed opponents in the semis. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images)
Some thoughts and observations ahead of Saturday's women's final between Francesca Schiavone and Li Na:
In a sport defined by its global outreach, Li Na's 6-4, 7-5 win over Maria Sharapova in Thursday's semifinals marked a stunning breakthrough. Even for those who fully appreciate Li's unfettered resolve and powerful groundstrokes, it has always been difficult to imagine an Asian player in the French Open final -- something she readily admits. "Growing up, I never played much on clay, and I didn't like it," she said during the week. "Trying to slide, I always fell down a lot. You get a lot of exercise (in the rallies), but you never win the point." Grudgingly, Li learned to maximize her agility on clay, and now she has reached the finals of both majors this year.
On a point as telling as it was crucial, Sharapova was serving at 4-5, 15-40 in the first set when she began pushing Li all over the court with bullets to the corners. Li made four excellent retrieves, two on each wing, and finally Sharapova ripped a sitter forehand that caught the netcord and flew off the court. It now seemed entirely possible that Li could pull this off, especially with Sharapova's serve going so badly haywire.
As well as Li played, this was a flat-out disaster for Sharapova. She committed 10 double-faults, three of them ending games and the last one, depressingly, ending the match. ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez noted that "you usually don't equate panic with Maria," but this wasn't panic or any kind of choke job. Those words never apply to Sharapova. This was a stubborn refusal to adjust in extremely windy conditions. Unable to apply the brakes a little and simply get the serves in, she persisted in going for broke and coming back with 100-m.p.h. bullets on second serves. That was such a risky proposition, considering Sharapova's unusually high toss, and there's simply no excuse for destroying your chances in that manner.
Worse yet, Sharapova's coach, Thomas Hogstedt, is the man who bailed out on Li under acrimonious circumstances last year. Hogstedt has now watched her reach Grand Slam finals under -- two new coaches -- first her husband (at the Australian Open) and now Michael Mortensen.
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The 6-3, 6-3 scoreline makes it seem somewhat routine, but this was a harrowing circumstance for Francesca Schiavone. In the wake of her unforgettable performance last year, only the presence of a French opponent could stifle the crowd's affection. Bartoli is the only French woman currently capable of reaching this stage. The window of potential adversity seemed narrower than the back streets of Paris for Schiavone, but there it was.
I'll bet more than a few fans harbored secret admiration. It's impossible not to appreciate someone so delightfully far removed from the one-note tedium of today's game. Here comes a dead-flat groundstroke, then a slice, a bit of topspin, a letter-perfect volley, and why not a drop shot from behind the baseline? Bartoli did a remarkable job answering all these questions, as least for a while, but I wonder if she wasn't dismantled by her own bizarre habits.
It's one thing for a player to do a few standing leaps, like an anxious prize fighter, to stay loose and perhaps send a message along the lines of, "I'm really in shape, so be ready for a long day." That's part of Bartoli's routine, but it also includes turning her back on the court to dance around and practice some fast-motion groundstrokes, as if she'd just been told she had a match in five minutes and she'd better get ready. What a notion: During the points, it's Bartoli's dream to stay planted on the baseline and unload those titanic groundstrokes. It's between points that she really springs into action, and what a dreadful waste of time and energy. All of that unnecessary movement has to take its toll, especially when balanced against the physical and mental strain of dealing with Schiavone's all-court game.
So there was Bartoli fighting for her tournament survival, down 5-3 in the second set, and on the second point of that game, Schiavone abruptly halted a baseline rally with a gorgeous backhand drop shot. In a response that spoke to exhaustion, Bartoli took exactly two steps and then gave up. The end was near, and Schiavone made no mistake in closing the deal.
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ESPN finally got a break in this tournament, carrying the women's semifinals live while Tennis Channel assembled a tape-delayed package for later in the day. This wasn't such a great thing for viewers who had savored the Mary Carillo-Martina Navratilova team for the better part of two weeks. Fernandez and Cliff Drysdale are perfectly nice people who played the game, but they fall badly short in comparison.
At a time when Sharapova's serving was at its very worst -- double-faulting three times in the eighth game of the first set -- Drysdale and Fernandez were pointing out the improved "balance" and "rhythm" of her motion, a point worth making earlier in the tournament but certainly not on Thursday. In addressing the comparison between Bartoli and Monica Seles (each hit two-handed groundstrokes from both wings), Drysdale asked Fernandez, "Did you play against Monica?"
Fernandez gave a diplomatic answer, which was nice. They faced each other 16 times over an eight-year period.
Drysdale did have his moments. Following up on a graphic that showed Bartoli averaging 35 seconds between points, he pointed out that "a player is allowed only 20 seconds. I don't understand why they don't enforce that rule a lot more than they do." And thanks to Drysdale for ridiculing Bartoli's bizarre gyrations, particularly as her opponent begins to serve.
"It's almost too in-your-face," he said. "In today's world, you have to deal with it. In our era, we would have sent somebody to give the guy a one-way ticket home."
ESPN's most annoying violation, by far, was its decision to interview Li Na during a crucial stage of the second semifinal: Schiavone serving at 4-3. What, they couldn't wait, or show it just a bit later? Nobody needs the distraction of a split-screen picture with so much at stake. It wasn't the broadcasters' fault -- they had no idea what was taking place inside the stadium -- but here we had Chris McKendry and Darren Cahill blithely talking about Li's husband while Schiavone served in silence. And on the 40-15 point, we got to hear McKendry tell Li, "In the meantime, I know you also love to shop." Bad idea, hopefully to be swept under the rug and left there.