Maria Sharapova once described herself on clay courts as a “cow on ice.” She’s mastered the surface well enough at the French Open this year to be one win from the final and a chance to complete the career Grand Slam.
Sharapova, the seventh seed from Russia who won Wimbledon in 2004 at the age of 17, plays in the semifinals today against Li Na, the first player from China to reach the last four in Paris.
Sharapova moved to the U.S. when she was 7 and honed her tennis game on fast hard courts. Although sliding on the clay of Roland Garros still doesn’t come easily for the 6-foot-2 right-hander, she has adjusted.
“There’s no doubt that I’ve improved on this surface,” Sharapova said at a news conference yesterday after beating Germany’s Andrea Petkovic 6-0, 6-3. “There’s no doubt that as the years went on I felt better and better.”
Defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy, the No. 5 seed, meets No. 11 Marion Bartoli of France in today’s other semifinal.
The men’s semifinal field was completed yesterday, with top-ranked Rafael Nadal of Spain beating Robin Soderling of Sweden 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3) and fourth-seeded Andy Murray of Britain defeating Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina 7-6 (7-2), 7-5, 6-2.
Nadal will play Murray tomorrow for a spot in the final against the winner of the other semifinal between second-seeded Novak Djokovic and third-seeded Roger Federer. It’s the first time the top four seeds have reached the men’s semifinals at a Grand Slam tournament since the French Open in 2006.
Sharapova won the 2006 U.S. Open and 2008 Australian Open, getting as far as the semifinals in Paris just once before, in 2007. She won the Rome clay-court event a week before the French Open began, her first tournament victory in a year.
Since coming back from shoulder surgery in May 2009, Sharapova had struggled in the majors, with a quarterfinal spot in Paris two years ago her best previous performance in that span.
In an interview in Rome, Sharapova said the will to win had kept her going when a torn rotator cuff forced her out of the Beijing Olympics, the 2008 U.S. Open and the 2009 Australian Open.
“There are times, obviously, when you just want to shut the alarm clock off and don’t go about your day in the way that it was planned,” she said. “But it’s so irrelevant when you’re holding up a trophy and when you’re winning matches and you realize how good that feels. That’s one of the reasons why, for 10 months when I was out of the game, I really wanted to come back because I felt like I had a lot left in me.”
Sharapova left long-time coach Michael Joyce at the start of the season and has worked with Thomas Hogstedt, who used to guide Li. After losing to Petkovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January, her form improved. Sharapova made the finals of Miami and the semifinals in Indian Wells, and returned to the top 10 of the WTA tour rankings in April for the first time in two years.
“Obviously, when you’ve won Grand Slams before, when you’ve been No. 1, you see yourself better, higher than that,” she said in Rome.
If she beats Li, Sharapova has a shot at becoming the 10th woman to win all four majors at least once. Serena Williams was the last woman to complete the set, at the 2003 Australian Open.
“Obviously, experience definitely helps me,” Sharapova said yesterday. “I’ve been in these types of situations; I’ve been in this stage of a Grand Slam before.”
Li, who has won twice in seven career matches with Sharapova, said she was happy to play someone like the Russian who hits the ball flat and hard, instead of an opponent who has grown up on clay.
“Spanish or European players, they like to play more topspin, dropshot,” Li said after beating fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus 7-5, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. “So I think this good for me. I don’t like running too much.”