Defending champion Maria Sharapova overcame an up-and-down performance Thursday to beat Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in the semifinals of the French Open.
Sharapova was sharp early, using her offensive weapons to blast past a tentative Azarenka to win the first set in just 28 minutes. Not surprisingly, the Russian couldn't sustain that high level and Azarenka's consistent return game earned her the second set as rain began to fall.
When the player returned from the rain delay, Sharapova got back on track. Though she needed two tries to serve it out, the world No. 2 ended the match in style, serving an ace down the tee to win her 13th straight match at Roland Garros. She'll face Serena Williams in the final.
"I have never really thought about going out on the court and just trying to be consistent, not playing my game and just getting the ball back," Sharapova said. The Russian hit 42 winners to 39 unforced errors and double-faulted on break point three times. "That hasn't really ever been my philosophy, because the way that I win matches is by being aggressive, by moving my power, by looking to move forward and playing that aggressive game."
Game-by-game analysis of the match after the jump.
12:00 p.m.: Sharapova defeats Azarenka, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4.
Could it really be as simple as which side of the court Sharapova has to serve from? Now serving on the better side, she goes up 40-0 quickly to earn three match points.
And ironies of all ironies: Maria Sharapova, who double-faulted on game point the first time she tried to serve out this match, ends it with an ace down the tee.
That's a fair result. Sharapova was the better player through much of the match and the second set hiccup was more a result of her own drop in form than anything special from Azarenka. Azarenka's lack of comfort on clay really showed in this match. She was more tentative than she is on hard courts, unsure of her footing, which translated into errors. She tried to beat Sharapova with steadiness, which is not how she plays her on hardcourts.
As for Sharapova, even with that second set blip that was her best match of the tournament. She's into the final as a defending champion of a Slam for the first time in her career and puts herself in a position to defend her title. She did it with all-0ut aggression, hitting 12 aces, 11 double-faults, winning 72 percent of her first serve points (compared to 54 percent from Azarenka) and hitting 42 winners to 39 unforced errors (Azarenka hit 15 winners to 22 unforced errors). Those numbers are no surprise when these two meet, but Azarenka needed to play a slightly cleaner match. Those unforced errors often came at the wrong times.
"I played a really great first set," Sharapova tells Brad Gilbert. "Even though I lost the second I knew I was doing a lot of things right. Just a few points didn't go my way." Says she's improved on clay because she's worked so hard on her physicality and can now recover from tough matches very well. Sharapova says she'll keep an eye on the next semifinal to scout for the final.
So can Sharapova beat Serena (who's the heavy favorite against Errani in the other semifinal) on the dirt? Probably not, but it's still her best chance.
11:56 a.m.: Sharapova leads *5-4.
A love hold from Azarenka gets her to 4-5 and Sharapova will try and serve it out again after the changeover. Let's see how that selective amnesia holds up now. She had four match points in that last game and didn't play any of them particularly well.
11:53 a.m.: Sharapova leads 5-3*.
Sure enough, as the sun peeks out Sharapova finds herself 0-30 down after two errors. Brad Gilbert opines Sharapova is struggling to serve from the near side of the court (where the wind is blowing in her face) because the wind pushes her toss back so she can't get her momentum into the court.
Sharapova gets back to 30-30 with an ace and a big backhand winner down the line when she looked out of the point. She follows it up with a great one-two punch with a serve out wide followed by a redirected forehand down the line winner to earn match point.
She goes for glory and misses. Big first serve down the tee just misses, and when Azarenka pulls her wide to the backhand, she goes for the big winner down the line as opposed to rolling it back to extend the rally. At deuce, Azarenka gives Sharapova Match Point No. 2 with an error, but does well with the return to force a Sharapova forehand into the net.
At Deuce No.2, Sharapova paints the line with her 11th ace of the match to earn Match Point No. 3. "That's the difference in this match. One goes for the lines. The other one is safer," says Mary Jo Fernandez.
Azarenka earns a couple of break points but Sharapova saves them by doing what's got her here, by being bold. Another one-two serve-forehand combination earns Sharapova Match Point No. 4. Sharapova puts a big serve into the court and Azarenka stuns her with an even bigger return that leaves her stumbling backwards. Deuce No. 6 now.
Sharapova double-faults for the 11th time to give Vika Break Point No. 3 and then double-faults again to hand over one of her two breaks. That's three double-faults on game points in this match. Incredible.
11:40 a.m.: Sharapova leads *5-2.
You have to have a bit of selective amnesia to be a champion and Sharapova showed it there. After playing that horrible game to give back the break, she comes out and breaks right back, painting line after line to earn a 3-2 lead.
"She's still going for it," says Chris Fowler, as Sharapova throws in her ninth double-fault of the match at 30-15 to give Vika a look at 30-all and an error on game point means we're at deuce again. Some more big hitting from Sharapova gets her another game point which she converts with...an ace.
Full of confidence now, Sharapova is pounding Azarenka's returns and Vika is feeling the pressure. Sharapova breaks again and she'll serve for the match. She'll have to do it from the tough side of the court.
Interesting observation here from Pam Shriver:
11:26 a.m.: Azarenka breaks back, tied 2-2.
Rain has begun to fall again, which means Sharapova and Azarenka are about to play the wonkiest game of the match: Sharapova recovers from back-to-back double-faults to get back to 30-all on her serve, but a great return right at Sharapova's feet gets Azarenka her first break point of the set. Sharapova saves it with an ace out wide and then hits another ace down the tee.
One game with back-to-back double-faults and back-to-back aces? That's Maria Sharapova in a nutshell. Go big or go home.
Oh, but it gets better:
On game point Sharapova double-faults for the third time in the game. That's kinda also Maria Sharapova, too.
Azarenka earns a break point with a smart short ball that draws Sharapova into no-man's land. Sharapova retreats but can't get back into the point. Down break point, Sharapova clips a line with her second serve and then puts away the short return. Holy moly.
Sharapova can't buy a first serve in this game. If she just spins the second serve in Azarenka punishes the ball. If she goes for too much she risks the double-fault. Sure enough, down break point she goes big on the second serve and sends it six inches long. Azarenka gets the break back.
Ouch. But yeah. Double-faulted on set point in the second set. Double-faults on break point to give up a lead.
11:15 a.m.: Sharapova leads *2-1.
Azarenka serves first and immediately Sharapova is returning and hitting better to start the set, though the wet clay has her stumbling as she tries to slide into her backhand. She gets to 30-30 on Azarenka's serve and gets a second serve to hit but knocks the backhand into the net. Azarenka saves a break point when Sharapova's attempts to redirect a backhand down the line and it goes wide. Vika holds.
Now Sharapova's tested and she passes an early test. Falls behind 15-30 after some errors, but hits a big forehand to get to 30-30, and then a big backhand crosscourt to earn game point. As Azarenka sends a backhand slice into the net, Maria lets out a huge "Come on!" that's still echoing through Chatrier.
For the second straight game Sharapova gets a break point behind some big hitting and she converts with a sharp-angled forehand/backhand combination. Can she hold on?
11:00 a.m.: Players are back on court.
As the players warm-up for this third-set shootout for a spot in the finals, let's stop and reflect on how much these two women love beating each other.
Those are victory reactions from their last two meetings, when Sharapova won 6-4, 6-2 at the WTA Championships in Istanbul and Azarenka won 6-3, 6-1 in the final of the China Open last fall.
The second set stats tell the story. Most glaring for Sharapova is how much she let Azarenka off the hook on second-serve points. Azarenka won just one of six points on her second serve in the first set. She brought that up to 5 of 6 in the second set and cleaned up her game off the ground, hitting 8 winners to just three unforced errors.
Players are ready and play has resumed.
10:48 a.m.: Rain delay
Maria Sharapova leaves the court between sets and the rain comes down in earnest. Players are now officially called off court.
As we enter the third set, let's look at the third-set records this year. Not surprisingly, they're both very good. Azarenka is 6-1 in 2013 while Sharapova is 4-1. Azarenka's one loss was to Ekaterina Makarova on clay in Madrid, 1-6, 6-2, 6-3. Sharapova's was to Serena in Miami, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.
The covers are on court, by the way:
As Azarenka waits out the rain you have wonder what she's thinking. Lucky for her she was able to get that set before the extended break. Both women will be allowed to talk to their coaches and get some advice. I would assume Thomas Hogstedt's advice will be some verbal version of a slap upside the head. The wheels really flew off in that last set.
In response to that tweet, a number of Sharapova fans tweeted back to inform me of one of Maria's lesser-known nicknames in the tennis fandom: "Semi-pova". Youch. And also, ha!
Covers are off and the players have been called to court. Should have play after a three-minute warm-up.
10:24 a.m.: Azarenka wins the second set 6-2.
Momentum changes can happen on a dime and that break was coming. Azarenka's confident hold to 3-2 led to a strong return game from her as she peppered Sharapova's second serve and induced some key errors to get the break.
Azarenka falls into a 0-30 whole on her serve but she digs in her heels and wins the next four points. She's seeing Sharapova's patterns better now, anticipating and absorbing the pace as we know (and Sharapova knows) she can do. This match looks like it's turning....
So is the weather. It's raining. Players remain on court but those are some big drops. Sharapova clearly wants to stop play, Azarenka doesn't, and it looks like Vika wins out. With large drops falling, they'll play on with Sharapova serving to stay in the set.
At 15-30, Azarenka hits a close ball on the baseline, the crowd starts whistling and Sharapova stops play to circle a mark. The chair umpire disagrees and rules the ball in, giving Azarenka two set points. ESPN's shot spot (not a definitive metric, by the way) shows the ball was out. Quick, someone get that screengrab ready to show Maria during her post-match press!
Sharapova saves one set point with an ace down the tee. Then she double-faults to hand over the set. We're going three.
10:05 a.m.: Azarenka leads 3-2*.
How confident should Sharapova be with a set in hand? Well obviously it's better than losing the first set, but she's been here before and came out the loser. The last time these two played at a Slam was in the semifinals of last year's U.S. Open, where Sharapova won the first set 6-3 before losing the next two sets 6-2, 6-4.
Then again, it's clay:
Sharapova looked shaky in her opening service game, but she's settled in now. Two back-to-back aces and she eventually holds easily. This is by far the best match of the tournament for Sharapova.
Azarenka finally gets an easy hold to 3-2. Maybe that will give her some confidence. She can still turn this match around.
Blink and you won't miss him, but Azarenka's boyfriend RedFoo is in the crowd. As he usually is. No sight of Maria's beau, Grigor Dimitrov. He's got the grass season to prepare for (and is probably discreet enough not to wear neon colors if he's in the crowd).
9:59 a.m.: Azarenka leads 2-1*.
Here's the stat-line for that first set, which was over in just 28 minutes. Sharapova served at just 55 percent but only lost one point behind that serve, winning 91 percent of the points (10 of 11). She finished the set with 14 winners to 7 unforced, a +7 differential. For Azarenka, it was mediocre to bad all around. She served at 63 percent and won just 20 percent of those (2 of 10), and hit 4 winners to 6 unforced, for a -2 differential.
Azarenka looks shell-shocked but she gets her first hold of the match to 1-0. She gets to 30-all on Sharapova's serve but Maria holds thanks to a huge second serve winner.
Sharapova is just returning so well today. Yesterday she blasted over 20 unforced errors in the first set against Jelena Jankovic to lose 6-0. That's over three unforced per game. 24-hours later she's tightened up her game and still playing with tremendous aggression. It's hard to explain how hard that is mentally, to keep swinging when you know how badly you can miss, especially with so much on the line. Then again, Sharapova's been doing this all-or-nothing thing her whole career.
Sharapova gets to deuce on Azarenka's serve but can't get much further. 2-1, on serve.
9:45 a.m.: Sharapova wins the first set, 6-1.
Third straight 0-40 hole for Azarenka on her serve and the second straight break at love for Sharapova. Azarenka's trying not to show her frustration but she turns her back to Sharapova and shakes her racket angrily. This is going quickly, not unlike some of Azarenka's one-way traffic on Sharapova in last year's Australian Open final.
Brad Gilbert says Azarenka is shaking out her legs and looking at her box. I'm sure the nerves of her first French Open semifinal are affecting her. Then again, she's a two-time Slam winner and U.S. Open finalist. She's obviously been at this stage before and in two of the those three Slam results she beat Sharapova en route.
There's the virtual bagel set for Sharapova. After losing the first game she wins the next six to win the set 6-1. The crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier is stunned. But probably no more stunned than Vika.
9:37 a.m.: Sharapova leads 4-1*.
Another great return game from Sharapova and she breaks at love. But it's not a break until you hold. Which she does. With a big forehand winner.
It's a deceptively large lead, as just a break separates the two. Through five games, the stats (and the scoreline) show Sharapova's high-risk game is paying off. She's serving at just 47 percent first serves but she's won 86 percent of those points and just 25 percent success rate on second serve points. The winner count, which favored Azarenka early, has swung back over to Sharapova's favor. Maria's hit 10 winners to 6 unforced, while Vika's hit 4 winners to 5 unforced.
9:30 a.m.: Sharapova leads 2-1*.
Well that's not a good start for the champ: Azarenka breaks at love thanks to two double-faults, and unforced error on the forehand side, and a nice dropshot from Vika to pull Sharapova in and finish with a volley.
One thing to look for early: the wind. It's blowing from the far side to the near side of the court. Sharapova started the match serving into the wind and was broken at love. The pair switched sides and Azarenka falls immediately into a 0-40 hole on her own serve, as Sharapova is ripping through her strokes and Azarenka struggling with the extra pace.
Azarenka settles herself to claw back to deuce. But Sharapova breaks back anyway.
Meanwhile, nice to know Kim Clijsters is watching the tennis!
Early observations: Azarenka looks the more balanced of the two out there and her willingness to hit with more spin and margin while taking the ball early is really what drives Sharapova batty in this match-up. You don't need to crush the ball if you can take it early. Either way you're taking time away from your opponent. But Azarenka is so good at taking the ball on the rise that it's really not a high-risk endeavor for her. Any risk is balanced out by how much spin she's willing to put on the ball. Contrast that with Sharapova, who is rearing back to hit the cover off the ball every time. Less margin there.
9:16 a.m.: Warm-up
It's a beautiful day in Paris as the women take the court with Azarenka under her hoodie as usual and Sharapova with her steely glare. It's 79 degrees out with a 40 percent chance of rain. Hopefully that rain holds off.
ESPN goes through their typical pre-game analysis, which means that it's less than 10 minutes into the broadcast and they've referenced how load the match is going to be twice. How is that necessary?
The consensus seems to be that it's a tough match to call but most are giving the edge to defending champion Sharapova. That's the way Chris Evert sees it. Darren Cahill falls in my camp, which give Azarenka the slight edge. She's playing the best she's ever played on clay and on the whole, her level has been better than Sharapova's in Paris. You can read my full analysis here.
Other than bragging rights and making a Slam final, the No. 2 is on the line today. Azarenka can assure herself the No. 2 ranking on Monday with a win, while Sharapova would have to win the title to take it. What's the big deal about a single rankings swap? The No. 2 seed won't have to play Serena until the final at Wimbledon.
No. 2 Maria Sharapova and No. 3 Victoria Azarenka will meet in the semifinals of the French Open on Thursday. The match is scheduled to begin as early as 9 a.m. ET, following the mixed doubles final. The winner plays Serena Williams or Sara Errani in Saturday's final.
Sharapova, the defending champion, rallied past Jelena Jankovic 0-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals, the first time the Russian dropped a set in five matches at Roland Garros this year. Azarenka has also lost one set, against Alize Cornet in the third round, and she defeated Maria Kirilenko 7-6 (3), 6-2 in the quarterfinals. This is Azarenka's first appearance in the French Open semifinals.