Two Happy Women Into French Final
June 2, 2011 -- World tour players wear game faces. You know, stern expressions that radiate determination and dare opponents to dominate.
Na Li and Francesca Schiavone were no different today on Court Philippe Chatrier. They were resolute throughout. They had a singleness of purpose: to win their semifinal matches.
But the second they had won, their stony faces melted into cheerful and warm smiles, joyous fist pumps, and wild jumps. They'd reached their goal.
Na Li would play her second slam final of the year. Francesca Schiavone would have her second chance to hoist the Couple de Suzanne Lenglen, and add another chapter to her storybook victory from last year.
Na Li also accomplished another impossibility, if you believe what she said yesterday, "I never think I could play semis at Roland Garros." You have to believe her, too. Her face spoke the truth.
This happy Chinese woman had reached a higher level of accomplishment for herself and for her country. She became the first Chinese woman ever to reach the finals in Paris. Additionally, she will be the highest ranked Chinese person ever -- #5 -- when the WTA rankings come out on Monday.
"They will show match same time in China," she told the press. "Many children saw [will see] match and maybe think that one day they could do better."
Right after her mini on-court celebration with her support box, Li quickly turned and ran to the net to greet a disappointed Sharapova ... the one who had had a career Grand Slam on the table.
"I will always say maybe it's a coincidence that, you know, the three Grand Slams I won were different," she said later to the media. "If I won another Grand Slam, whether or not it's here, I think it will mean just as much and even more to me in my career than having it be all four at all different ones [venues]."
If you're left wondering what Sharapova's true feelings were about falling short of what tennis considers the ultimate in performance, you are not alone. Sharapova doesn't emote much in a press conference, and she sure wasn't upbeat having just lost a semi at a Grand Slam.
Li, though, was the better woman today on court. She came out cracking deep forehands tracked down by nimble foot-speed while Maria looked stiff. Her timing was off, but not her doggedness.
"It's always tough against Maria," Li said. "She's always fighter every point. Even when I have match point, I don't know whether I can win the match or not because she never give up."
Predictably Sharapova recovered one of the two breaks Li had in her pocket early in the first set. She shook her fist and walked head down to the sideline for the changeover.
As she stood at the baseline at the start of the next game Sharapova hesitated, turning her head as persistent winds swirled red clay across the court the way sand drifts in a desert.
Her recurring nightmare was about to rear its ugly head: double faults. She committed two and gave the power back to Li, who would serve for the first set.
Sharapova unleashed her next best asset -- her return of serve. She stepped closer to the baseline and ripped returns enough to break one more time.
They rang up three consecutive breaks before Na Li won it 6-4, the wind a perfect metaphor for their swings in energy.
Luckily for Sharapova, her rituals kept her mind focused on a point. She stared down the court before she served, solidifying her strategy in her mind.
Even though Sharapova lead throughout the second set, her double faults hadn't blown away in a scattering cloud of red clay. She had been followed. Her high ball tosses wavered in the wind. She chased the ball. She lost the edge.
She chalked up nine double faults in the match, her tenth on match point for Na Li.
"At times I didn't serve well," she said. "[I] was rushing more than maybe I had to, and maybe went for, considering the conditions, maybe I was just trying to go for too big a second serve."
That decision was a poor one for Sharapova.
After the terre battue was watered, dragged, and lines swept, two new faces walked on court centrale. The Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli and Francesca Schiavone, a petite Italian adored by this country. But not as much.
Schiavone played the perfect match against the heavy-hitting baseliner Bartoli. Their styles clashed.
The momentum grew for Schiavone as she moved Bartoli left and right along the baseline, and pulled her forward in the court to then throw up a lob or whip a passing ball just out of her reach.
Bartoli, though, had French fans on her side. Mary Pierce, more a Franco-American, was the last titleholder in 2000. Before that Francoise Durr blessed France in 1967. You would have to travel to pre-World War II to find another French champion -- Simone Mathieu. Of course, Suzanne Lenglen remains the enduring icon of French women's tennis. At 14, she won The French Championships.
The French were long overdue.
For each point and game Bartoli won, people rose from their seats to applaud her. She was inching closer and closer to a dream that never materialized like most dreams. Her flat shots were predictable. She was a replica of Monica Seles, standing on or inside the baseline, taking the ball on the rise, slapping it deep and at times at an angle too much for even the agile Schiavone to reach.
As more points passed, the inevitable took hold. Schiavone placed serves, sliced backhands, mixed up pace, and opened the court for put-away shots. Bartoli ran as well as can be expected, but could not catch the ball off her opponent's racquet. She could not counter the classic clay courter, no matter how hard she struck the ball, no matter how determined she was.
Francesca Schiavone is the type of player Na Li has said she hates to play. The 'dirt-baller' who spins and dips her way around the court.
Schiavone would love to repeat. Her Italian section of the stadium will be overflowing. Na Li has entered a whole new universe of red, and she's not in China. A victory for her will spill over into that country of three billion people.
Their head-to-head is tied at 2-wins all. They have played once on clay, during last year's French Open in the round of thirty-two. Na Li has come a long way since that day, as has Schiavone.