French Open 2015: Stunning Safarova will face ultimate showdown with Serena Williams

Lucie Safarova sets up a French Open final showdown with Serena Williams after beating Ana Ivanovic in Paris

There is no getting away from the fact that the final four women to line up at Roland Garros on a near-perfect afternoon did not feature the names that most had expected—with the exception of the ever-present, seemingly indefatigable, Serena Williams, that is.

Certainly, previous Grand Slam champions in the draw had laid down early markers. Victoria Azarenka dropped only eight games in reaching the third round but, currently seeded only 27, she had the misfortune to draw Williams unseasonably early and could not sneak the win after a surging start.

Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, seeded No4, looked strong on her least favourite surface in reaching the fourth round, but she fell to a woman whose return to the tour last year, having taken time away from the sport, had become one of the stories of the tournament: the fast-rising Swiss No23 Timea Bacsinszky. But having taken out one reigning Grand Slam champion, it would be her fate to take on the winner of the last two Grand Slams, Williams, in the semis.

Three former finalists here, Sam Stosur, Sara Errani and Simona Halep, had enjoyed varying success—Stosur ran into defending champion Maria Sharapova while Errani had to contend with Williams in the quarter-finals.

The loss of Halep in the second round left the door open for semi-finalist No3, the No7 seed Ana Ivanovic. The popular Serb, who won her first and only Grand Slam here in 2008, while seen as a ‘dark horse’ in the French draw, had many times lifted hopes of recapturing her 20-year-old form only to waver under the weight of expectation. At last, things seemed to be falling into place again.

Other high-ranked contenders had also failed to make an impression: No5 Caroline Wozniacki reached the second round, Jelena Jankovic faded in the first along with Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska. But the biggest surprise of all was the loss of the woman who had featured in the last three finals, winning twice, the No2 seed Sharapova. She arrives with a cold, and eventually could not resist the heat of the last of the 2015 quartet, No13 seed Lucie Safarova.

The disparity among the four was stark, and the prospects for Bacsinszky in particularly bleak. Williams would be playing in her 27th Grand Slam semi—and aiming for a remarkable 20th Major title. For her opponent, this was her first Grand Slam semi experience.

For the big-ball-striking Ivanovic and Safarova, it was a harder call. Ivanovic was, of course, the former titlist here, and a finalist in 2007 as well, but this was her first Major semi-final since those heady days. Safarova, however, was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon last year, and the left-hander had won five of their eight previous meetings. She was undoubtedly a woman on the rise, a late bloomer who beat outstanding competition in Doha to win the title there, and in Paris she had beaten more tough opposition: Anastasia Pavlyuychenkova, Sabine Lisicki, Sharapova and Garbine Muguruza thus far, and she was assured of her top-10 debut, possibly No7, with a win over Ivanovic. And all that on top of reaching the semis in doubles as well.

The contest would prove to be as close, tense and pacey as their rankings and results suggested. There was fast, powerful striking, both wanting to take the initiative. First Ivanovic was in control with a break and a 4-1 lead. She served at 5-2 for the first set, only for Safarova to lose her early nerves and start swinging the glorious forehand that had got her this far—with not a little net skill and double-handed backhand, too.

Ivanovic, as is her wont, tightened, especially on serve, and Safarova leapt all over her second serve to break twice and serve out the set, 7-5.

Ivanovic had to dig deep to hold her opening serve in the second set, and having done so, attacked Safarova. She could not take advantage of break points and Safarova retaliated to break and then hold, 3-1.

Now both began to show nerves, one trying to stay in the match, the other trying to maintain her level. There were double faults on both sides but, almost fatally, Safarova hit three of them as she attempted to serve out the match in a gruelling nine-minute game of match-points but also four break points: Ivanovic got the break for 5-5. However, the Serb’s serve also wavered, and she was immediately punished with another break. This time, Safarova served it out to reach her first Major final, 7-5—the first Czech woman to reach the French final since 1981.

There are few more popular women on the tennis tour, though few who did not also spare a thought for Ivanovic. But there are few, too, who will now envy her final hurdle come Saturday, the two-time French Open champion targeting her 20th Grand Slam.

However Bacsinszky was a woman on a mission, up 88 places in the rankings since she was qualifier here last year, and with back-to-back titles this year in Acapulco and Monterrey. Already she was predicted to reach a career-high No15 next week but could break the top-10 if she beat Williams.

And it looked as though she could do just that. Williams looked as though she was at death’s door, with no energy or drive, making errors, unable to get her serve into its formidable groove, and the Swiss woman made hay, broke in the fifth game with a string of winners, and continued to hit with remarkable assurance and freedom. Bacsinszky fought off a break point in the eighth game and served out the set, 6-4.

It looked for all the world as though Williams might throw in the towel, but she persisted, only to go down a break in the fifth game after five deuces on a sixth break point.

Where she summoned the resources to turn around the match, few will ever find out, but she broke straight back to start a 10-game surge during which her serve got better and better—a tactic that preserved both effort and energy.

Meanwhile, Bacsinszky increasingly struggled on her own serve, and made a growing numbers of errors as she attempted to chase down what would become a tally of 37 Williams winners in the match. Just a few minutes short of two hours, the world No1 had the win, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.

It marked the fourth time this tournament that Williams had been forced to come back from a set down, but it also marked her 24th semi-final win in 27 played.

She leads Safarova 8-0, but the Czech took the American to three sets in their last meeting. And unless Williams can recover her full health before Saturday, the confident woman who will shortly be making her debut in the top 10 could just make history at Roland Garros.

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