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Beyond the Baseline

French Open women's semifinal preview

Maria Sharapova (right) will reclaim the No. 1 world ranking if she can take down Petra Kvitova in the semis. [Paul Childs/ZUMAPRESS.com; Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images]

Maria Sharapova vs. Petra Kvitova: If ever there was a rivalry that bloomed in utter silence it's this one. Sure, it's not as fun considering these two actually seem to respect each other and don't go out of their way to passively-aggressively throw insults back and forth, but that's what makes this rivalry special: it's all about the tennis. Kvitova won her first career Slam at Sharapova's expense at Wimbledon and Sharapova put an end to Kvitova's bid for the No. 1 ranking earlier this year at the Australian Open.

These two top 5 players only seem to meet when the stakes are high and the stakes couldn't be any higher on Thursday. Sharapova is looking to accomplish her career Slam and a win here gets her back to No. 1 for the first time since her shoulder surgery in 2008, while Kvitova is trying to get to her first final of 2012 and regain her aura of the most promising and dangerous woman on tour. Given their lopsided winning records against the other two potential finalists, this could be the toughest match of tournament for both Sharapova and Kvitova (they're a combined 15-1 against Stosur and Errani). While neither woman has faced a top 20 player en route to the semis (Kvitova hasn't even had to beat a seed), they've both had some spotty matches. Sharapova needed three sets to put away Klara Zakapolova in the fourth round, and Kvitova has been pushed to three sets twice by two players ranked outside the top 100 (Bratchikova and Shvedova).

If you go by recent form, Sharapova is the favorite. She rebounded well in her win over Kaia Kanepi and she has a win over Kvitova on clay, a tight 6-4, 7-6(3) win in Stuttgart in April. How much stock do we put in that win? Some, but not a whole lot. Stuttgart was an indoor clay tournament on a relatively fast court. Rain and thunderstorms are forecast for Thursday, which means a slow and heavy court. In those conditions I give a slight edge. She has the power to hit through a court made of molasses. But can she do it consistently? The key to this match will be Sharapova's serve. That serve bailed her out in key moments in her win in Melbourne and it's the reason she ran away with the title in Stuttgart. If Sharapova holds easily the pressure shifts to Kvitova. I'm not confident she'll handle that pressure well.

Prediction: Sharapova in three sets.

Sam Stosur vs. Sara Errani: The last time Sam Stosur stepped onto Court Philippe Chatrier as the heavy favorite against an Italian, Francesca Schiavone walked away with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen and Stosur was left wondering what might have been. But this is a more experienced Stosur. Now a reigning U.S. Open champion, she's learned how to deal with the butterflies and she's a player who's built a career on having to learn from disappointment in order to be ready for the next go-round. She carries a 5-0 record against Errani, most recently beating her in straight sets in Rome. But if she think she can simply replicate the same game plan she had against another diminutive player, Dominika Cibulkova, she's asking for trouble. What Errani lacks in power and height she more than makes up for in court savviness, and she won't make the mistake of gripping and ripping and giving Stosur free points. By all accounts, Stosur should win this match, but she does have a reputation of buckling in the matches exactly like these. Keep an eye on the first set: Stosur is 48-0 in Grand Slam matches when she wins the first set.

Prediction: Stosur in two sets.

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