The Power of Power
June 1, 2011 -- Maria Sharapova hasn't reached a semifinal in a major since the Australian Open in 2008. Na Li doubted she'd ever reach a semifinal at Roland Garros.
But both women made their marks on tennis history in Paris today.
Na Li sent the fourth seed, Victoria Azarenka, home with a straight set victory -- 75 62 -- making the Chinese woman the first to reach the semis at Roland Garros. Azarenka's exit rounded out the top four seeds that won't play in the semifinals this year. The last time all four seeds bowed out before the final four was 2006.
On the men's side, the opposite news made its way around the world. All four top seeded men reached the semifinals. The last time that happened at Roland Garros was 2006. Two years later, these men were the last four standing at the U. S. Open, too.
Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray have a firm hold at the top of the ATP heap. Not so with the women.
What came through, though, in the two featured women's matches today was the power from the racquets of Sharapova and Li. It was Williams' sister power; and, it made the difference in their matches.
Andrea Petkovic can handle a heavy ball. Make no mistake about that. But she couldn't move to an offensive posture against Sharapova. The German was busy defending, keeping the ball in play, scrambling.
Same with Victoria Azarenka. She's as tough as they come and relishes fast-paced tennis. But Li's shots penetrated the court more consistently immediately after she secured the first set. As the length of rallies went beyond two or three shots, and Li moved her opponent, Azarenka's timing became a problem. She was late. She was caught off guard with the depth of Li's shots.
The end of the tournament for Azarenka came as a shock, although Li leads in head-to-head competition. Azarenka hadn't dropped a set this fortnight whereas Li's path has had twists and turns. However, records speak clearly. Azarenka has lost all four Grand Slam quarterfinals she reached in her career.
The victory also came as a shock to Li.
"After I won I realized I was in the semifinals. I never think about that before," she said. "So many people think I'm not so good on clay, but I think now they should change [their view] a little bit."
Azarenka said she wasn't playing her best today, adding, "She was very solid."
Li likes power tennis. Red clay tournaments can favor European players whose styles are somewhat unpredictable, though.
"So I know these three players was like hit ball so hard, not even like Spanish or European player, like play more topspin, dropshot. I think this good for me. I didn't like someone play like Spanish player. I always have to running and hit the ball. I hate that," she said, laughing. "I like to stand there. Yeah."
This is Li's second semifinal of the year. She reached the finals in The Australian Open when Kim Clijsters defeated her.
The Chinese woman has been sidelined with injuries throughout much of her career. Sharapova can relate to injuries and the trek back up the rankings ladder.
In the summer of 2008, Sharapova's shoulder injury had progressed to a point where she couldn't play. She missed the last part of that year, only returning to the game in the late spring of 2010.
She struggled. Her serve was way off and her double fault stats on the rise. It had been bedrock of her power tennis. But Sharapova never gives up. She held her head high and rode out the rough months, a tough task for a woman who was comfortable winning tournaments.
She broke back into the top ten on April 4, 2011, in Miami for the first time in more than two years.
Sharapova is the most experienced of the four remaining women, when it comes to Grand Slams. She played in the semis of Roland Garros in 2007. She has won the Australian Open (2008), Wimbledon (2007), and the U. S. Open (2006). If she wins the Coupe de Suzanne Lenglen on Saturday, she will have joined an elite group of women players who have a career Grand Slam.
"It's exciting to be back in the semifinals at Roland Garros," she said. "I've put in a lot of work. I'm really happy it's here."
Petkovic didn't score a game against Sharapova until the Rolex clock ticked fifty-one minutes, in the second set.
In the end, after multiple breaks, Sharapova cast her fate to the wind. She hit out and out, leaving little room for her opponent to win any more than the three games she left the court with.
Sharapova's and Li's semifinal match, which is scheduled for tomorrow at 2 PM, will be a powerful display for fans. This won't be the first time they've played each other at Roland Garros either. They met in 2009 in the fourth round where Sharapova defeated Li 64 06 64. At the time, Maria had just returned to the tour and was ranked 102.
Both are injury free now. Both are hungry for the title. Outside their power game, which both will demonstrate, the power of concentration will be their biggest asset Thursday.