June 2, 2011

Where Dreams Come True

Paris is a magical city, one which can turn the most unlikely commoners into kings and queens. And a quick look at the late-stage draws at this year's French Open serves as the latest proof of just how true that is.

Four very different ladies fought their way to the semifinals on Thursday, some decorated champions, others tested journeywomen. And the ones who emerged victorious may not have been the ones you expected.

Maria Sharapova had established herself as one of the favorites at Roland Garros, thanks to a title in Rome and a reclaimed top-ten ranking. And as the prospect of a career Grand Slam drew nearer, she began playing her most impressive ball.

But surprise Australian Open finalist Na Li was not intimidated by her more experienced opponent. After breaking the big-server early, the top-ranked Chinese woman never lost her control of the match. She got into a small hole to start the second set, but broke again a few games later, converting on the Russian's tenth double fault of the day to ultimately get the win.

It was Li's sixth top-ten win of the year, and possibly her most important. At twenty-nine years of age, she's reached her second straight Grand Slam final -- on two very different surfaces -- something few others would be able to do. And now slightly more accustomed to the pressure of the big stage, she might just be ready to take the next step.

The road won't be easy, however -- in the other half of the draw two others were busy making a case for themselves in Paris.

Hometown standout Marion Bartoli had worked her way to only her second Grand Slam semi with wins over a tough Julia Goerges and 2009 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova. Though injury had forced her to retire from the Strasbourg final just under two weeks ago, she was showing no signs of residual pain and had far surpassed her previous best showing at Roland Garros.

But defending winner Francesca Schiavone had other plans. The woman who was barely discussed as a threat to reclaim her crown defeated former world #1 Jelena Jankovic in the fourth round and came back from a set-and-break down to beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to return to the final four. After a close start against Bartoli, she secured a late break and took the first set in forty minutes, and she overcame a 0-2 deficit and won the second in another fifty.

And so Schiavone, never expected to win a Major title, is suddenly in a really good position to win another. She last met Li in the third round here last year, but they've split their four prior meetings. Whether it's the Chinese winning her first Slam -- and the first for her country -- on Saturday, or the thirty-year old pulling off the most unlikely repeat, someone is certainly going to have her greatest wish granted.

The men will contest their semifinal matches tomorrow, and for the first time since 2006 all four top seeds have made good on their positions. And though there is a bit more experience present in this draw, there is nonetheless a new excitement in the air.

Defending champion Rafael Nadal survived some early round scares and has since not dropped a set. He'll meet first-time Roland Garros semifinalist Andy Murray for a place in his sixth French Open final, and this match promises to deliver on the drama.

Never much of a force on clay the Scot really has turned his record around this year. He nearly ended Novak Djokovic's win streak in Rome and found a way to battle back from two sets down against Viktor Troicki -- on a bad ankle. He's never won a set off Rafa on the surface, but his resolve makes me slightly nervous. Still, he hasn't had much of a challenge this fortnight, and if Nadal brings the momentum he gained from his win over Robin Soderling in the semis, I see him making another return to this championship match.

The more interesting match, though, may be one that holds greater implications than just another Grand Slam title. Novak Djokovic will take on Roger Federer for the third Major in a row -- and a win would grant him the #1 world ranking. Already having won forty-one matches and seven titles this year, it seems a formality to officially take over the ranking, but one that has certainly been well earned and would change the landscape of men's tennis significantly.

Of course, the top spot isn't his yet, and Federer, incidentally the last man Nole lost too more than six months ago, is no pushover. After that epic match at last year's U.S. Open, he rebounded to beat Djokovic in Shanghai, Basel and London. And having progressed through the draw without dropping a set and winning no less than seventy-seven percent of his first serves, he could be the ultimate sleeper in a field of big-hitters.

For the first time in a long time, there are huge implications in this year's men's semifinal matches. I'm not sure who I want to see make the finals or win, for that matter. But I am sure that whoever gets there will have earned it.

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