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French Open semis preview: Sharapova, Azarenka will be tight; Serena will roll

Serena Williams Serena Williams is in her first French Open semifinal since 2003. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

The French Open women's semifinals are scheduled to begin Thursday at 9 a.m. ET after the mixed doubles final. (Click here for the order of play.)

The WTA's Big Three are into the final four in Paris. Top-ranked Serena Williams is the overwhelming favorite in her semifinal clash with last year's runner-up, fifth-ranked Sara Errani, while the first meeting of the year between No. 2 Maria Sharapova and No. 3 Victoria Azarenka is a much tougher one to call.

Here's a preview of the women's semifinals:

Maria Sharapova vs. Victoria Azarenka (first semifinal): One of the hottest rivalries in 2012 will be renewed when Sharapova and Azarenka face off. The pair met six times in 2012, usually while holding the top two spots in the rankings. Azarenka won all four of their matches on outdoor hard courts (Australian Open, Indian Wells, U.S. Open, Beijing), while Sharapova dominated on clay (Stuttgart) and indoor hard courts (WTA Championships). Overall, Azarenka leads the head-to-head 7-5 and has always relished the challenge of playing Sharapova. The Russian's weaknesses feed right into Azarenka's strengths.

Azarenka, an elite returner, has no trouble smacking away Sharapova's second serve. Her consistency off the ground and ability to get the ball deep on Sharapova keeps the pressure on the big-hitting Russian to go for far too much. Three of Azarenka's last four wins over Sharapova were decisive: 6-3, 6-0 (Australian Open), 6-2, 6-3 (Indian Wells) and 6-3, 6-1 (Beijing). Those were finals of big tournaments.

How does it change on clay? Sharapova is more sure-footed and comfortable on the surface, while Azarenka has been a work in progress. Azarenka has undoubtedly improved year after year on clay, with this year's semifinal her best career result at Roland Garros. Last year, she said she wasn't married to the clay yet, but it sounds like she's feeling more sure of things this time around.

"I still don't have any ring on my finger," Azarenka said after her 7-6 (3), 6-3 win over Maria Kirilenko in the quarterfinals. "But I feel like we made a step forward. We are moving in together. That type of a relationship is moving forward and see what happens after."

I'm picking against Sharapova, despite her prowess on clay and general confidence. Azarenka is peaking at the right time, having scored strong wins over Francesca Schiavone (6-3, 6-0) and Kirilenko in the last two rounds. She's full of confidence and coming into a matchup she knows she can control if she can play her best. Sharapova hasn't played her top level yet, needing to recover to beat Jelena Jankovic 0-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals. It's a difficult matchup for Sharapova, who will need to serve well and exploit Azarenka's moving woes out wide. With the pressure of defending her title as well as that jockish hatred of losing to Azarenka, there's more riding on this match for Sharapova.

Prediction: Azarenka in three sets.

Here are highlights from their most recent match on clay, in Stuttgart, Germany, last year:

WERTHEIM: Sharapova, alley fighter

Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani (second semifinal): Williams comes in on a 29-match winning streak, the longest of her storied career. She passed her first challenge of the tournament in the quarterfinals, defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 on Tuesday. The 31-year-old American is bidding to return to the French Open final for the first time since she won in 2002.

Errani, like Williams, has marched through the draw with only one set lost. Her 6-4, 7-6 (6) win over No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals was her first victory against a top-five player in 29 attempts.

The 26-year-old Italian has been very good this tournament, but she has neither the power nor movement to frustrate Williams. Her low-risk serve (she's served at better than 85 percent for the tournament, hitting one ace and one double fault) begs to be hit. She'll struggle to hold serve all day. Williams leads the head-to-head 5-0 and beat Errani 7-5, 6-2 on clay in Madrid last month. It would take a very bad day at the office for Serena to lose.

"You've got to appreciate how consistent she is," Williams said after her quarterfinal win. "We had a pretty tough match in Madrid. I'm going to be ready. I'm glad I played her in Madrid because I know she's here to play, and she's here to compete. She's so serious. I can be ready for that."

Prediction: Serena in two sets.

Here are highlights from Williams' victory over Errani in Madrid:

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