- Peter Bodo, Tennis
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Right about now, some people must be thinking that Maria Sharapova is doing cartwheels in her hotel room and high-fiving her coach, Thomas Hogstedt, knowing that she will be playing a first-time Grand Slam finalist, No. 24 Sara Errani.
Perhaps Sharapova is even wondering whether she needs to bother putting on her workout deodorant.
Granted, No. 2 Sharapova is vastly improved on clay. She has a terrific serve as well as tremendous first-strike capabilities. But I can think of a number of reasons why this overwhelming favorite needs to be extremely wary of the 5-foot-4 dynamo from Bologna, starting with this:
Samantha Stosur, the No. 6 seed at Roland Garros, is a former French Open finalist with a terrific serve and tremendous first-strike capabilities. And Errani subdued her with cool nerves and rock-solid consistency of the kind that enabled defending champ Li Na to bounce Sharapova in the semifinals last year.
So the real question is: Why shouldn't Errani, who also took down former French Open champs Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova in back-to-back matches, continue on the same kind of roll her Italian countrywoman Francesca Schiavone produced in 2010 to unexpectedly snatch the title, ironically enough, from Stosur?
I can think of three factors that will be working against Italian lightning striking the same place twice in two years:
1. Sharapova is a far more stable and steely competitor than Stosur, Kuznetsova or Ivanovic. Granted, her serve sometimes goes missing, but she has learned to patiently work her way through those spells without panicking. And she isn't prone to choking, which was an enormous problem for Stosur once again in the semis.
Sharapova will always go down swinging, rather than with her feet growing roots in the clay. She may miss, partly because of nerves, but that's different from the out-and-out choke a la Stosur in which her feet grow roots in the clay.
Sharapova is a firm-handed opportunist who not only knows what a huge chance this is, but is well aware of what it would mean for her legacy to win the clay-court major (it would complete her career Grand Slam and re-establish her as the undisputed No. 1).
2. Sharapova has elevated her clay-court game over the past 16 months and is still on the upswing. It took a while, but she finally figured out that the clay can be her friend, even if she hits a big ball, eschew rallies and isn't famous for her movement. It was a change of attitude more than one of technique or tactics.
Instead of striving to become that mythical "clay-court specialist" (or writing off clay), Sharapova has learned to trust her game and capitalize on the extra time that can really help players of her skills and shortcomings. It was the same conclusion that enabled Mary Pierce and Robin Soderling to make two finals each. (Pierce was the last French woman to win in Paris, in 2000.)
3. Errani's serve, by far the weakest part of her game, is unlikely to withstand the barrage Sharapova will unleash. Breaking serve is a specialty of Sharapova's, and Errani's serve can be attacked even when she's putting a high percentage of first serves in play.
I wouldn't underestimate Errani's ability to stay in rallies or to absorb those body-punch forehands and backhands. She will get wood (or graphite) on all but the best of the favorite's serves and undoubtedly try to mess up Maria's rhythm and lure her into the net.
But none of that is likely to matter if Sharapova continually tees off on Errani's serve, and I see nothing to suggest she can't. It's extremely hard to win a Grand Slam when you have an Achilles' heel of such magnitude, or at least it is against a natural-born champion such as Sharapova.