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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Love-hate relationship with Sharapova

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

PARIS -- The two remaining women's quarterfinals at the French Open countered the drama of a day earlier.

There were no peaks and troughs.

Rather, Li Na and Maria Sharapova advanced comfortably over Victoria Azarenka and Andrea Petkovic, respectively.

You could argue that both have destiny on their side: Li is two wins away from becoming China's first Grand Slam winner -- having come so close in Melbourne -- and Sharapova is bidding to complete her Grand Slam collection.

Here are five things we learned from Wednesday's women's action:

The fans are fickle

One minute in Paris they don't like Sharapova, and the next they love her.

Sharapova was memorably booed, and loudly, against Dinara Safina at Roland Garros in 2008, in turn giving the fans a piece of her mind. In the second round of this edition, they didn't like it when Sharapova gave her trademark wave after downing France's Caroline Garcia.

On Wednesday, it was all good again.

"I think crowd support is really important," Sharapova said. "I heard a lot of people cheering my name in Russian, which means a lot to me."

Enjoy it while you can, Maria. It could change against Li.

Azarenka still needs work

Azarenka entered the French Open with as good a chance as any of winning the title.

And why not? Subtract retirements for shoulder and elbow injuries and, in one stretch, she'd emerged victorious in 20 straight matches.

But more questions will be asked of her mental toughness and ability to compete under pressure after failing to reach a maiden major semifinal. Yes, despite her mastery of Miami in recent years and playing Serena Williams tough in Melbourne, she still hasn't gotten there.

"I never considered her a favorite," said Azarenka's coach, Sam Sumyk. "There are other players playing as well as her and who've already won Grand Slams, made finals or a few semifinals, something Vika never did. So you put that group first. I think she can win the biggest tournaments on the planet -- eventually."

Azarenka had enough chances against Li in the 7-5, 6-2 defeat. She blew a break lead at 2-1 in the first and was unable to manufacture the pivotal break when back on serve, despite having Li in trouble. In the second set, she also struck first, only to surrender the break back immediately.

First games can set the tone

Over two sets, it's not often that the opening game is the turning point. It seemed the case in Sharapova's comprehensive 6-0, 6-3 win.

The high-energy Petkovic rolled out to a 40-0 lead on serve, on the verge of getting the start she wanted -- but eventually lost the game. By the time it was 3-0, she coughed up 11 unforced errors, more than her entire tally in the previous round.

Petkovic didn't get on the board until the third game of the second set.

"I just did really well in those important points in the first set," said Sharapova, who reached her first Grand Slam semifinal since the 2008 Australian Open. "I think that was the difference in the beginning."

Petkovic, mostly on the defensive, was never able to move Sharapova around the court. There was no moonwalk today.

Vika is transformed

This was the perfect time for Azarenka to explode. She was playing a crucial match on a massive stage and coming out second best. It thus wouldn't have been a surprise to see a racket or two take some punishment.

Azarenka, however, continues to show restraint, not returning to old, bad habits.

That's a positive.

"She's had the right attitude for a while," said Sumyk. "She knows exactly what she wants. She's willing to learn, and she wants to be better."

Contrast her improved on-court maturity with world No. 3 Vera Zvonareva, who, after seemingly progressing last year, is back to exhibiting poor body language.

Coaching changes work

Li discussed how happy she is with her new team, again. Former doubles pro Michael Mortensen, a Dane, is working with her on a temporary basis, while hubby Jiang Shan is no longer at the forefront.

"The team gave me a lot of confidence and gave me good energy," Li said. "Also they trust me a lot."

Similarly, following a rocky start, at least based on results, Sharapova is flourishing with Swedish coach Thomas Hogstedt.

Thursday's semifinal between Li and Sharapova takes on more allure given Hogstedt left Li late last year to coach the Russian. The split wasn't amicable, either.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.