Bryan Armen Graham
Thursday June 30th, 2011

Maria Sharapova overcame a sluggish start to see off Sabine Lisicki on Thursday, setting up a Saturday showdown with Petra Kvitova for the title. (AP)

WIMBLEDON, England -- Five thoughts in the immediate aftermath of Thursday's women's semifinals at Wimbledon:

Experience matters. Maria Sharapova lost the first three games of her semifinal match against Sabine Lisicki this afternoon. Centre Court. Trip to the finals on the line. Miserable start. Lesser players would have panicked. Sharapova? She took a deep breath, corrected her service toss, and reeled off nine of the next 10 games, putting herself in the position to win, 6-4, 6-3. Less seasoned players can -- and should -- go into big matches asserting they “have nothing to lose.” But experience matters. And Sharapova, a three-time Grand Slam champ, has had a huge advantage on the field ever since the Williams sisters went out on Monday. She hit double-figures in double-faults, but her groundstrokes, her returning and, above all, self-belief in a big occasion pulled her through. Not her finest performance. But, after seven years, she’s in the Wimbledon final once again.

Well de-served. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won his match against Federer yesterday largely because he brought his serve, giving Federer only one break point sniff the entire match. When you serve with ease, you not only demoralize the opponent but you can take bigger risks on the return game. The serve can be vital in women’s tennis as well. Lisicki came into today’s encounter averaging nine aces per match, having hit the fastest serve (multiple times) of the tournament. Today -- battling nerves and an expert -- she served zero aces, barely made half her first serves and was broken five times. Lisicki, a wild card,  is a future top-five player and ought to leave here with her head high, particularly given where she was a year ago. But next time she’s in a big match, she’d do well to remember to bring her serve with her.

There’s no Kvit in Kvitova. Petra Kvitova is a big lefty. She pounds the ball off of both wings, big flat strokes and the occasional cutting slice. She plays inside the baseline and has a nice knack for strategy. But here’s what’s most impressive about the 21-yer-old Czech: for the second straight match she went “off the boil,” as the Brits say, in the second set of a high-stakes match. And then found the poise to win in the third, beating Victoria Azarenka, 6-1, 3-6, 6-2. Especially when mental strength is not always the most abundant commodity in women’s tennis -- to wit: Azarenka double-faulted on match point -- this is significant. Saturday is a big occasion for Kvitova. Let’s see if she keeps her nerve again.

Noise pollution. Azarenka deserves credit for living up to her No. 4 seeding and getting to the Wimbledon semifinals. But she came out flat today, fought gamely to get back in the match and then reverted to flatness. This loss surely stings. And this feels like piling on but here goes: the grunting must stop. Television doesn’t convey how distracting and cloying it is. It’s unfair to the opponent. It’s unpleasant to the audience. It alienates fans. Beyond that, it’s creating undue pressure. With every loss, Azarenka increasingly becomes known not for her tennis but for her sound effects. The voices against her are getting louder. (@PatrickMcEnroe: Heres a simpler way-warning, point penalty!!!!) Christine Brennan of USA Today saw Azarenka for the first time here and wondered why she isn’t being fined. If I’m Azarenka’s agent I say: let’s cut this affectation before it gets ugly. • How I learned to stop worrying and love the chaos. We came within one set of seeing the top four men's players make the semifinals in both Paris and Wimbledon. Either Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic has won every major, save one, for the last six years. By contrast, the last six Slams have yielded five different women’s winners. (And none was the first- or second-ranked player.) There are three recent No. 1s now residing outside the Top 20. The parity is problematic for a variety of reasons. But it can also be fun. Every tournament can yields a new winner. Upsets abound. Draws implode. Sharapova may win on Saturday and restore some order. But if she loses, maybe we just embrace the unpredictability of the women’s game today.

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