French Open 2015: Stosur and Sharapova sail to epic rematch as Halep falls

Maria Sharapova breezes past Vitalia Diatchenko to set up a French Open third-round clash with Sam Stosur in Paris

The French have been out in force at Roland Garros already this week—and not just in the stands.

In the men’s draw, the home nation boasted more players than any other country, with 14, five of them seeded. Half made it through the first round.

On the women’s side, too, there was plenty of French interest: 11 women made the main draw, but by Round 2, only four of them remained, two of them wild cards. And it was the fate of both those wild cards to play seeds, with Amandine Hesse drawing one of the Grand Slam champions in the draw.

Sam Stosur is as low profile a Grand Slam champion as you could wish for, helped not a little by her poor runs at the Majors since she last penetrated the second week with a quarter-final run at the US Open in 2012.

Yet as well as being a champion in New York in 2011, she has three times reached the semis at Roland Garros, and was runner-up here in 2010. Yet she did not even warrant a mention in the WTA’s preview of the day’s action—though that is probably just how the quietly-spoken Stosur likes it.

But, now age 31 and ranked 22, she has looked every inch the Grand Slam champion since arriving in the French capital, fresh from her first title of the year on the clay of Strasbourg.

She took an hour and a quarter to race by Madison Brengle in her first match, 6-1, 6-3, and in the blink of an eye—22 minutes, anyway—she had the first set under her belt, 6-0, against Hesse. The 22-year-old, ranked just 272, had never won a Grand Slam match before her first round here, and she was not about to win another. With just 54 minutes on the clock, Stosur had advanced to the third round, 6-1, and that set one of the most highly anticipated matches of the women’s draw this year.

For while Stosur was racing through the first match on Suzanne Lenglen, the defending champion and No2 seed Maria Sharapova was doing her best to beat fellow Russian Vitalia Diatchenko just as swiftly on Philippe Chatrier.

Sharapova had ‘laboured’ through a tough first match against Kaia Kanepi under the influence of a heavy cold. So rough was her throat that the soundtrack that usually accompanies her matches was reduced to a husky sub-text, and she declined even an on-court interview afterwards.

But looking more French even than the French women in the draw—a blue-and-white ensemble with pleated skirt that has bucked the pink-and-orange trends of this year’s Roland Garros—she remained on a mission: to reach her fourth French Open final in a row and claim her third title.

Diatchenko had only played one match before the French Open after picking up an ankle injury during the spring, and in reaching this second-round face-off with her illustrious compatriot, she had equalled her best Grand Slam result.

Sharapova had only recently met her during the Fed Cup, but that was enough to know that the world No91 was a “big hitter”. And though Sharapova was quick out of the blocks, Diatchenko levelled in the first set as she settled to this big stage for the first time.

Now, though, Sharapova upped the aggression to produce 24 winners for just eight errors, and eventually cruised to a straightforward win, 6-3, 6-1.

And so to Stosur, who had hit 23 winners of her own during her brief stay on court, and while Sharapova holds a considerable advantage in their head-to-head, 14-2, including 4-0 on clay, their last meeting, here last year, was a thriller.

Stosur led 6-3, 4-3, and had Sharapova at 30-all. But in one of the turnarounds of Grand Slam match-play, the Russian won the next nine games in a row to win, 6-4, 6-0, going on to win the title.

Naturally both women were asked for their memories of that match, and their thoughts about their imminent rematch.

First Sharapova: “She has a very heavy ball, and I think on clay specifically it just really penetrates through the court. The spin she’s able to create from her forehand and her serve, she has one of the best kick serves in the game. She’s really able to put that power into it and kick. She also slices a lot. There are a lot of untraditional things she does, but I guess I enjoy the challenge of playing her. I have a pretty good record against her, I enjoy our matches.”

And Stosur: “Playing Maria is always a big challenge for me. No matter what surface it’s on, I don’t have a very good record at all. Obviously we played last year—the last time we played each other. So I’ve got to be ready to have to play as well, if not better, than what I’ve been doing.

“Hopefully this time if I do get in a position, it won’t fall away so quickly. But I feel like I’m playing well. I’ve had a good lead-up, and now I’ve played another really good match here.”

She also talked of her increased confidence and of returning to her tried and trusted former coach.

“[I feel] very different [to last year]. Right now I feel like I have really turned a corner, playing the way I know that I can and the way I enjoy and doing the things that make me have good results… I think going back with [coach] Dave, that’s given me confidence and it’s just been a very easy transition from when we first started again to now, kind of back to what it was two years ago, knowing what I’ve got to be doing. It comes easily again now.”

So the blockbuster is set, and in a half of the draw that was soon stripped of last year’s losing finalist, No3 seed Simona Halep.

Halep had played her No70-ranked opponent, 33-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, only once before, and what a match that proved to be.

Lucic-Baroni’s has been a remarkable story of persistence over the odds. She won the first WTA tournament she played at 15, and reached the Wimbledon semis at 17, but was then knocked back by repeated injuries and personal struggles that saw her play hardly a tournament between 2000 and 2009. By last summer, she had worked her way back to the main draw of the US Open, and there she beat Halep to reach the fourth round of a Major for the first time since her Wimbledon run 15 years before.

And Roland Garros proved a case of history repeating, with the Croatian woman plying her all-court attacking game to beat one of the favourites for the title, 7-5, 6-1, in just 71 minutes, with her 29th winner of the match, an ace. She will now play in the third round here for the first time since her best ever-run in 2001.

And so the circle turned back to the French at Roland Garros, for Lucic-Baroni will next play No 29 seed Alize Cornet, who beat Alexandra Dulgheru, 6-2, 7-5. Virginie Razzano would have to wait until French star Gael Monfils finished on Philippe Chatrier to try her luck against the in-form Spaniard, Carla Suarez Navarro.

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