French Open 2011: Schiavone and Li light up Paris
Neither started as favourites a fortnight ago, but the old-fashioned skills of Schiavone and Li have prevailed
The French Open women’s semi-finals may not have featured the top four seeds but they still contained a bucket-load of quality, class and reputation as well as storylines packed with contrast.
In one, Na Li, seeded six, faced one of the stars of women’s tennis, No7 Maria Sharapova, while the other brought together two of Paris’s most popular players – title-holder and No5 seed Francesca Schiavone and the French Marion Bartoli, seeded 11.
First up was everyone’s darling, Sharapova, a comeback queen of beauty, stature and guts. Returning to the tour after shoulder surgery, elbow injury last year and a viral illness at the start of this year, the French Open was the only Grand Slam she had not won.
But she was showing all the determination that had won her the Wimbledon title as a 17-year-old and she seemed fighting fit.
She also seemed to have mastered clay, beating no less than Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki and Sam Stosur to take her first clay Premier title in Rome just two weeks ago.
Sharapova had faced her Chinese opponent seven times before and led her 5-2, including their only meeting on clay in the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2009.
However, Li -who has also had time away from the tour with knee surgery in 2008 and a stress fracture the year before -won in their last two meetings, both on grass.
There were similarities aplenty. Apart from a history of injury, neither enjoys the challenges of clay, both were trying to reach their first French final and both had beaten tournament favourites in their quarters: Li defeating Azarenka and Sharapova taking out Andrea Petkovic.
Yet in many ways, they were like chalk and cheese. While Sharapova hit the top as a teenager, Li was a late blossomer, taking time out along the way to study for a degree.
The Russian is seven inches taller, five years younger, wears her heart on her sleeve during matches but is guarded in interviews. Her height, enhanced by a high-intensity approach, feeds powerful outright winners from the baseline but inhibits her movement.
Li is petite, compact, a closed book -though extrovert and witty away from competition. She is a balanced, mobile and nimble woman who has the footwork and movement to underpin great timing and precision of shot-making.
And in the difficult, windy conditions of Philipp Chatrier, these were assets of great value.
Li came out in attack mode, moving her opponent around the court with her trademark cross-court forehand mixed up with drop shots and lobs.
She broke straight away, but Sharapova attacked like with like and broke back to level at 4-4.
With the wind blustering, both women fought to hold their serve but had the power and accuracy to fire their ground strokes through the wind to break each other.
It was eventually Sharapova whose serve went to pieces and her fifth double fault of the set, followed by a cross-court forehand that clipped the net, handed Li the set, 6-4. The Chinese woman’s attack and accuracy had scored 14 outright winners against just five from the Russian.
The second set was initially a reverse of fortunes as Li misjudged her ground strokes in the swirling wind. With a scattering of shanks, she lost seven points on the trot and Sharapova broke Li’s first service game.
Both produced an error-strewn run of games but again it is Li who found greater control over her crisp, angled forehands, and even the backhand began to yield winners. Her down-the-line double-hander is one of the most balanced, attractive shots in the women’s game.
Sharapova’s nerves tightened and another double fault gave Li the break back, 4-4.
In a tense ninth game, Li took her third service game in a row and, in the 11th, held to love with impressive control and focus.
Time and again during the match, she angled a flat forehand wide to wrong-foot Sharapova for an outright winner, and she did so again: 6-5. For a second time, Sharapova had to serve to stay in the match and, with a nervy 10th double fault, she ended her title chances.
So the charming Li beat a succession of tips for the title -not only Azarenka but also Petra Kvitova and now Sharapova -to become the first Chinese woman to challenge for the French title and, with two consecutive Grand Slam finals in the bag, the first to break into the top five.
She said after her win over Kvitova, “If you don’t like the arena, the weather, the surface, you still have to play the match. You have no choice. You have to challenge yourself to play.”
She and the woman she faces in the final both have that same unquenchable will to win.
Schiavone has captured the hearts of tennis fans worldwide with her joy and tennis-craft since winning the title at Roland Garros last year. If that was unexpected, her progress to the final again, at almost 31, has been just as popular.
But the crowd, on this occasion, had another heroine to cheer: their French maid, Bartoli.
She, rather like Schiavone, breaks the women’s tennis mould: She has an unconventional, in-your-face, distracting kind of aggression wrapped up in an ungainly style. Yet her desire was as palpable as the Italian woman’s and her every winner was cheered to the rafters.
She deserved their support, too, stepping inside the baseline, hammering her shots with great self-belief and working her socks off during and between every point.
But Schiavone’s talent is that old-fashioned mix of tactics, variety of spin and direction, intelligent shot selection and a sliced backhand that used the swirling wind to slither away from her opponent’s racket.
Normally flamboyant in her body language, today’s Schiavone was more composed, studiously ignoring the fist-pumping antics of her younger opponent.
Bartoli lost just one point in her first three service games but, on the next, she was broken and the Italian sliced, dropped and angled her way via 13 winners to the first set, 6-3.
The Frenchwoman, not giving an inch, broke Schiavone’s opening serve in the second set. The crowd roared its approval but their joy was short-lived. The Italian levelled at 2-2 and the fireworks continued through a chess-match of big hitting countered by defence, variety and touch.
It was entertaining and intense tennis, but in the seventh game, Bartoli made a couple of crucial errors and, at 15-40, her opponent snatched the break with a charismatic, leaping forehand pass. Schiavone leapt for joy. She knew she was heading for the final, and she confirmed it at 6-3.
So Saturday’s battle promises to be a delight of accurate, varied and intelligent tennis between two of the off-court personalities of the women’s game.
On one side the 29-year old Li and on the other the 30-year-old Schiavone. If the latter wins, she will be the first Slam winner in her fourth decade since Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon in 1990.
Now that is celebrated company indeed.