Saturday, 8 June 2013

Twice as Nice

Roland Garros is meant to be the 'odd one' on tour, the Open with the widest pool of potential winners, where upsets are the most likely to happen (Francesca Schiavone for example).  But with all the inevitability of a Manchester United Premier League trophy, the top two seeds, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, have slunk through the draw to face off against each other in the final on Saturday.

Indeed, it seems as though French Open predictions have been floating around the tennis ether for three or four months now, and have particularly intensified when Serena racked up an impressive unbeaten run since Doha, and Sharapova consolidated her clay court 2012 with the title in Rome.  And of the pair, it is undoubtedly Serena who has continued to dominate the headlines in Paris, and tops many polls of likely champion on the weekend.

Yet, clay is a surface that Serena has historically struggled on.  A solitary French Open title, garnered in 2002, highlights a significant hole in her resume, and marks the one other time she has made the final of the event.  However, a 30 match win-streak has defined the first half of a 2013 season in which she has fairly devastated the rest of the WTA, in particular the top 10, with some dominant results.  This fortnight's Roland Garros has predominantly played out  to these expectations, with her only real test coming at the hands of former champ and injury-bedraggled battleaxe Svetlana Kuznetsova.  The hoodoo of multiple quarter-final exits seemed to prey on the American's mind as she slumped in the second set after breezing through the third.  And as the match progressed, it appeared to be Virginie Razzano all over again as Serena then went down a break in the decider.  However, the difference between the Serena of Roland Garros 2012 and the player who has dominated the tour since, is the steely determination, the supreme focus, and the hunger to lift herself out of the funk of momentum swings in matches.  Turning the final set of the quarter-final round took a mammoth amount of mental and physical strength, but one that Serena, under the watchful eye of her post-French coaching appointment Patrick Mouratoglou, seems to have copious reserves to mine.

From a break down in the final set, Serena snapped into place to brush away the Russian's challenge.  And the ensuing semi-final, against last year's runner-up Sara Errani, saw her most compelling performance of the championships.  A 46 minute match, she bulldozed the Italian with a 60 61 victory, dominant from start to finish to mete out the most one-sided French Open semi-final in the tournament's history.

It was in stark contrast to Sharpova's semi-final.  The Russian required 3 sets to break down the spirited defenses of the world #3 Victoria Azarenka, following on from the 3-setter that she played against the resurgent Jelena Jankovic in the quarters.  Arguably, these were the more tricky opponents that either finalist faced all week, and Sharapova handled the undulations of the games appropriately, exhibiting her improved movement on the surface.  However, she will still remain the outsider on Saturday, and will look not only to dam the 30 match win streak of the American, but also to put an end to her own personal record at the hands of Williams.

Sharapova has the ignominy of not beating Serena in 9 years, not since the YEC in 2004, the year she wrestled the Venus Rosewater trophy from the Williams sisters' grasp on a July Saturday at Wimbledon.  And while Sharapova has claimed three sets from Serena since the end of 2004, she has also ceded 24 to her opponent, some of those (like last year's Olympic final) have been as one-sided as Williams' routing of Errani on Thursday.

It is hard to see where, or indeed when, Sharapova will finally find a way to defeat Serena again, thus ending her 9-year 12-match losing streak.  The form of Williams alone would suggest that the Russian will be a mere bystander to the line-painting dominance of Serena.  Any below-par serving from Sharapova, an unfortunate characteristic of her tournament, will be pounced on by Serena, while the American's power should highlight Sharapova's clay court frailties.  Before the French Open began Serena Williams was the overwhelming favourite for trophy accolades on ladies finals day.  And nothing she has done throughout the tournament would suggest that she won't be the recipient of the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen for the second time in her career on June the 8th.

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