French Open: Sharapova and Halep Set for a Saturday Showdown

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By John Huston and Bill Simons

MARIA MARCHES ON: It’s a constant theme, in life, and in sports, including tennis—the established star, knowing and supreme, falling victim to the fresh-faced wannabe. Boxer Cassius Clay knocked out the seemingly invincible heavyweight Sonny Liston. The Indianapolis Colts traded away arguably the best quarterback in the game, Payton Manning, for the untested rookie Andrew Luck.

Last year in Australia, we saw Serena Williams fall to Sloane Stephens in a surprising upset. And today, 27-year-old Maria Sharapova came up against the player many have touted as her heir apparent, 20-year-old Eugenie Bouchard. Just as Serena and Sloane went into their now-infamous first Grand Slam joust with a (contrived, it turned out) “mentor” storyline. Maria and Eugenie had a backstory—though there’s a seven-year gap between them, they were photographed together as junior hopefuls, and Bouchard wore outfits from Sharapova’s Nike collection when she first came on tour.

The stage was set: Genie’s Army vs. the prime leader of the Russian brigade. There was no shortage of pre-match intrigue, with French-Canadian TV catching Bouchard and coach Nick Saviano arguing during a practice session the day before the big match. Back in April, Bouchard set people talking by refusing to shake hands with a lesser-known opponent during a Fed Cup photo op. Imperial iciness, check. Fiery temper, check. Which Genie would emerge from the bottle against Maria?

For a while, it looked like yet another youngster would steal the crown, as Bouchard used her trademark early ballstriking to angle the ball away from her more powerful opponent and seize the first set, 6-4. But early setbacks have become a familiar part of Sharapova’s 2013 French Open campaign. For the third-straight time, she dug deep and won the final two sets of a three-set battle, overcoming a series of serving wobbles to score a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory that brings her just one match away from a second French Open title.

STRAIGHT-SET SIMONA: On Saturday, Sharapova will face Simona Halep, who has answered almost all doubts about her competitiveness at the Slam level with a strong straight-set march to the final of a tournament where bigger names and higher seeds were knocked out in the first few days. The Romanian fourth seed’s latest victim was Andrea Petkovic, who at least brought Halep to a nervy tiebreak before falling 6-2, 7-6.

Defined by quiet competitive focus, stylish shotmaking form, fleet movement, and equally quick-thinking and inspired point construction, Halep’s thus-far unmarred road to the final—including a fourth-round dismissal of Sloane Stephens—contrasts with Sharapova’s series of hard battles. It’s worth noting that the pair recently met in the WTA final at Madrid, where Halep took the first set before—surprise!—Sharapova stormed back to win the title.

While Halep is seeded higher than No. 7 Sharapova, as she put it after her victory over Petkovic, “I don’t know how it is to play a final of a Grand Slam.” She goes into the steep air of Saturday as the underdog—a dangerous one.

THE LISICKI FACTOR: When Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep face off in the final of the French Open, they might also be vying for the “honor” of losing to Sabine Lisicki in a few weeks at All England Club. For the last three years, Lisicki has beaten the reigning French Open champ at Wimbledon—Li Na in 2011, Sharapova in 2012, and Serena Williams in 2013. She’s heading into this year’s event with an injury, though.

SIMONA GRADUATES, SLOANE HELD BACK: Going into their fourth-round face-off, understated Simona Halep had seven recent WTA titles to her name, while Sloane Stephens—rarely at a loss for a quote—was the only WTA player to have reached the fourth round of the past six Slams. In a sense, their careers to date were reverse mirror images of each other. The WTA chose Halep over Stephens as most improved player in 2013, and that decision was borne out by Halep’s 6-4, 6-3 victory.

GO FIGURE: Rafa Nadal has never lost to Andy Murray on clay and he has a 14-5 overall edge … The two have already squared off eight times before in Slams, and are the only top players in the Open Era to have met multiple times in each Slam … Nadal beat Murray three straight times in major semifinals in 2011 … Murray’s two major singles titles—the US Open in 2012 and Wimbledon last year—didn’t include matches against Nadal.

RAFA RECORD: Going into the semis, Rafa Nadal is 64-1 at Roland Garros, with eight French Opens to his name. Seven-time winner Bjorn Borg was 49-2 here. Seven-time Wimbledon winner Pete Sampras was 63-7 at the All England Club. Seven-time French Open winner  Chris Evert retired with a 72-6 record in Paris.

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES: “My fifth set went up in smoke,” Gael Monfils said, offering up a line that was much better than his tennis in the final set of a 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 1-6, 6-0 loss to Andy Murray.

THE TIMES ARE A CHANGIN’—MAYBE: Rafa Nadal said, “Our generation is now on the way out. Murray, Djokovic, Ferrer, and Berdych, Tsonga as well, we have been here for a long while, and others will replace us: it’s normal.”

JUST WONDERING: How come Canadians suddenly are doing better than Americans? … American junior Francis Tiafoe has drawn incredible attention. But there are other American boys with great potential, including 16-year-old Stefan Kozlov, who made it to the boys’ quarterfinals here in Paris before falling in a tight three-setter.

WHAT’S IN A NAME? US junior hope Stefan Kozlov lost to Russian fourth seed Andrey Rublev, and if that name rings a bell, you might be an art lover or movie maniac—the acclaimed 15th century painter of religious icons Andrei Rublev is both the title and subject of a classic 1966 movie by director Andrei Tarkovisky. As for the new Rublev, who favors a y instead of I in his first name, it appears that he’s painting winners all over the court.

WE ONCE WERE CHILDREN: Andrea Petkovic said she no longer does her popular “Petko dance” after wins because it “had gotten out of hand” and “You can’t be dancing anymore when you’re 30” … Similarly, Novak Djokovic no longer does his hilarious on-court imitations … In 1989, a 15-year-old Monica Seles came on court with floral bouguets and threw them to the fans.