Maria Sharapova’s fighting spirit passed yet another test on Thursday as the Russian defeated Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard in three sets on Court Philippe Chatrier. She advances to her third consecutive French Open final aiming to win her first Grand Slam crown since her triumph here two years ago.
She will face the talented young Romanian Simona Halep, who will be making her first appearance on the game’s biggest stage. The world No. 4 defeated Andrea Petkovic in straight sets in the second of yesterday’s semifinals.
Admitting afterwards that she felt that she had not quite hit her highest level against Bouchard, Sharapova was still delighted with a win that keeps her on course to win a second Roland Garros title:
“I don't feel that I played my best tennis today,” she said. “But to be in the semifinals of a Grand Slam and winning a match where I felt my opponent played extremely well, exceptional tennis and I didn't feel that I was playing my best, I fought, I scrambled, and I found a way to win. I'm happy and proud about that.”
The opening punches thrown in the semifinal all came from the Canadian, as Bouchard started strongly to take an early lead. Playing in her second Grand Slam semifinal, after her superb run in Melbourne earlier this year, the 20-year-old’s aggressive style put pressure on Sharapova from the outset.
The Russian managed to claw her way back into the opening set, breaking back to level the score at 4-4, but Bouchard hit some superb shots to immediately re-take the advantage, before holding her nerve as she survived break points in her next service game to win the opening set 6-4.
This called for a response from the 2012 champion, and she delivered immediately, securing an early break in the second set. But, as in her quarterfinal with Garbine Muguruza, Sharapova could not make the most of her lead, and allowed Bouchard a route back in: the pair traded breaks but ultimately remained even until the latter stages of the set.
It wasn’t until she was 6-5 up that Sharapova made her crucial breakthrough, playing a superb return game to snatch the set and level the match.
As with her two previous matches against Muguruza and Sam Stosur, winning the second set gave the seventh seed exactly the boost she needed: although Bouchard was still playing some excellent shots, she could not match Sharapova when it came to the big points.
So reliable throughout the first two sets, Bouchard’s first serve started to wobble and she was punished for it as Sharapova broke the Canadian twice without giving her any break point chances of her own. The Russian sealed the win 46 75 62 in two hours and 27 minutes.
Clearly disappointed with the result, Bouchard was still determined to find the positives from another strong Grand Slam showing:
“It just motivates me that even if I wasn't playing, you know, great, I was still so close,” she told a post-match press conference. “That just gives me extra motivation to work hard in practice, […] get ready for the next one, and you know, have that belief that I can do it.”
Halep’s match with Petkovic began in front of a half-empty stadium, as the spectators took some time to catch their breath after the drama of the first semifinal. Those that stayed, however, were treated to some superb tennis from the Romanian, as she outhit and outran Petkovic to take the first set 6-2 in just 28 minutes.
The German recovered somewhat in the second set, as she showed glimpses of the form that she had displayed in her comprehensive victory against Sara Errani. She was able to match Halep for the majority of the set, eventually forcing a tie-break.
But Petkovic, who, like Halep, was making her debut in a Grand Slam semifinal, could not sustain that level throughout, as the higher-ranked Romanian won the tie-break comfortably, giving her a sixth successive straight sets win at this year’s tournament. Halep, who will rise to world No. 3 in Monday’s rankings, now goes on to compete in her first Grand Slam final.
Ranked outside the top 50 just one year ago, the 22-year-old’s remarkable rise to prominence has been one of the most intriguing stories of the women’s game: since Roland Garros last year, she has won seven titles, a record only matched by world No. 1 Serena Williams. Regardless of the result in Saturday's final, she is now undoubtedly a full member of the game’s elite.
“I didn't expect this last year,” she said when asked about her stellar season. “But if I'm here, I have to enjoy the moment and to take more confidence in myself.”
While Halep has been in outstanding form over the past fortnight, she will certainly start as the underdog against Sharapova. Conceding that “it will be very tough to manage the emotions”, she will be hoping to concentrate on replicating her performances in the previous rounds, and will no doubt take heart from the difficulties that Bouchard and Muguruza have caused the Russian this week.
Before the women’s singles semifinals, the mixed doubles competition was completed on Chatrier, in an exciting final between the eighth seeds, Julia Goerges and Nenad Zimonjic, and the unseeded pairing of Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Jean-Julien Rojer.
After Goerges and Zimonjic won Rojer’s serve for the first time to clinch the opening set 6-4, Groenefeld and Rojer came storming back to take the second 6-2. That meant that the match would be decided in a champions tie-break, and Groenefeld and Rojer were able to sustain the momentum that had won them the second set, closing it out 10-7 to record a memorable victory.
The result gave Groenefeld her second Grand Slam mixed doubles title, having won at Wimbledon alongside Mark Knowles in 2009. For Rojer, a doubles specialist who has made the semifinals in either men’s or mixed doubles at every Grand Slam, the win gave him his first major triumph.
“I’m very excited, very happy,” he said afterwards. The 32-year-old, originally from Curacao (a part of the Netherlands Antilles until the latter was dissolved in 2010) who now plays under the Netherlands flag, received funding from the Grand Slam Development Fund in the early 2000s and will be delighted with his reward after many years of hard work.
In the men’s doubles, Saturday’s final will see the French 11th seeds Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin take on Spanish 12th seeds Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez after both teams won tricky semifinal matches in three sets on Thursday. The women’s doubles semifinals will take place on Friday.
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