French Open women's semis: Ivanovic vs. Safarova, Serena vs. Bacsinszky
PARIS – Women's semifinal action begins on Thursday at the French Open, with Ana Ivanovic taking on Lucie Safarova in the first match, followed by Serena Williams against Timea Bacsinszky. Play begins at 6 a.m. ET with the mixed doubles final on Tennis Channel, then moves to ESPN2 at 9 a.m. ET for the women's semifinals and continues on NBC at 11 a.m. Full television and broadcast schedule can be found here. Full order of play can be found here.
No. 7 Ana Ivanovic vs. No. 13 Lucie Safarova
Ivanovic is into her first Slam semifinal—that's right, at any Slam—since she won the title here in Paris in 2008. Back then she was a cherubic 20-year-old, wowed by her early success and, she admits now, not ready for everything that came with it. She left that tournament with the No. 1 ranking. Seven years later she has yet to reach those heights. Her struggles, both mental and physical, have been long documented. She has been extraordinarily gracious in how open she's discussed them all over the years.
"I just was so excited and I felt like I can achieve anything," Ivanovic said, when asked to look back at her 2008 self. "At that point I had so many victories and so many good results. Maybe I didn't appreciate it as much as I do now."
Ivanovic may be the higher ranked player going into Thursday's match but she's a decided underdog against Safarova, a player who has flummoxed her in the past. Safarova, 28, leads their head-to-head 5–3, including a 6–3, 6–3 win here in the third round last year. She is into her second Slam semifinal in 12 months after she upended defending champion and No. 2 Maria Sharapova in straight sets on Monday and then beat last year's quarterfinalist Garbine Muguruza, again in straight sets, on Tuesday. With this run to her first French Open semifinal she will make her Top 10 debut next week. She is playing with tremendous confidence and she showed against both Sharapova and Muguruza that she's willing to step in and hit a big, heavy ball, going toe-to-toe against two of the game's biggest hitters.
Ivanovic possesses more variety than both Sharapova and Muguruza and she'll need it to keep Safarova off-balance. The Czech's lefty serve will be a massive asset as well. She has been broken just four times in her last four matches. This is a tough match-up for Ivanovic, who will need to keep her head when the score gets tight. As for Safarova, this is a huge opportunity for a late-career breakthrough by making her first Slam final.
No. 1 Serena Williams vs. No. 23 Timea Bacsinszky
The chase for Slam title No. 20 is on. After a scratchy first four matches, which saw her struggle out of the gate only to will herself to victory in three sets over the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens, Serena put the tennis world back on its axis with a dominant 6–1, 6–3 win over Sara Errani in the quarterfinals. She's a combined 18–1 against the remaining three women in the draw, including 2–0 against Thursday's opponent, Bacsinszky.
Having scrapped her way to the semifinals—just her third in Paris since she won her first of two titles in 2003—can Serena put aside the nerves now that she is the overwhelming favorite to take the title? This isn't a new feeling for her given her domination over the tour for the last two years, but it's one she readily admits can be difficult.
"It's not so easy," Serena said. "Some days are better than others. Some days I'm like, I feel it; some days the pressure gets to you. It's kind of hard when you go to every single match and you're the favorite to win and it's bigger news when you lose than when you win. So that is not really easy. But one thing that I learned when I was really young is I had an opportunity to work with Billie Jean King. I've said this a number of times, she said, Pressure is a privilege. I'm in a position of privilege to be able to feel that pressure."
Bacsinszky will have no pressure, not only because she's the underdog but because that's just not how she approaches her tennis anymore. Two years removed from nearly walking away from the game to pursue a career in hotel hospitality, Bacsinszky is playing with house money. Every opportunity to compete is a blessing and every win is a bonus. She played Serena tough this spring, taking a 7–5, 6–3 loss in Indian Wells to the World No. 1. That loss snapped Bacsinszky's 15-match win streak, which included back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Monterrey.
"Serena is the favorite," Bacsinskzy said. "She has lots of titles under her belt. She can be a source of inspiration to many people, not only tennis players, but at the same time have a job to do. My job is to do the same: to find the weak points of my opponent, to find a solution. If I can't find a solution, it's not a big deal. My life is not at stake with this match. Whatever happens, I know that I will do my best. I will give it all."
Don't let her laissez-faire attitude fool you. Bacsinszky is a fantastic competitor. A tennis prodigy who struggled under the heavy hand of an abusive father, she has rediscovered her love of tennis this year and has been one of the winningest players on the WTA in 2015. Since her return to the tour she is easier on herself and her perspective on life has made for a happier person on and off the court.
"The other day I brought Raclette to the physios," Bacsinszky told reporters after her quarterfinal win over Alison Van Uytvanck. "I gave my word in Shenzhen at the beginning of the year to give her Swiss Raclette cheese at the French Open. So I remembered. I went to buy Raclette cheese. I don't know. I gave something to them, because, well, even if they are provided from the WTA, at the end they are human beings. Just giving one time one present or saying thank you is not killing anyone."