Three The Hard Way For Maria Sharapova
PARIS -- The women's French Open final between Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. here Saturday, but Sharapova need not worry if she lingers too long tasting her beloved macaroons along the Champs-Elysees or posing with aspiring young players on her way to Roland Garros that day. As she has shown repeatedly this week, the first set really doesn't matter much.
Perhaps it's just that she simply wants to make things interesting for fans, what with so many other big names out of the tournament. Sharapova is 40-1 when winning the first set at Roland Garros, which makes matches much more compelling when she loses that set instead.
Plus, losing the first set and going three sets stretches out the potential commercial slots for Sugarpova.
Or maybe she's just facing some tough, young opponents, such as rising Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, who beat Sharapova 6-4 in the first set of their semifinal Thursday. That gave Montreal fans reason to get over their hockey playoff depression and raise some Molsons in hope that their native daughter was about to become the first Canadian woman to reach the final of a Grand Slam.
Unfortunately for them, that first-set loss also put Sharapova in a winning position.
After all, Sharapova had been in this situation her previous two matches. Both Samantha Stosur and 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza whipped Sharapova in the first set of their second-week matches only to see the veteran roar back and win the next two sets rather handily. Though it was not quite so easy this time, Sharapova rallied again to beat Bouchard 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 to advance to her third consecutive final at Roland Garros. She will play Halep, who beat Andrea Petkovic in straight sets.
"I would love to win those matches in two sets, but I always feel like I put in the work to be ready to play whatever it takes," said Sharapova, who beat Sara Errani in the 2012 final and lost to Serena Williams last year. "If it takes three hours to win the match in three sets, I will be ready for that. If I have a match that's easier and a more convincing win, then I will take that as well. But I will do whatever it takes. If I don't start good, if I lose the first set, I'm going to be there until the end."
Oh well, Montreal fans. There is always the Alouettes' CFL season coming up. More important, at age 20, Bouchard is going to be around for a long time, maybe even long enough that the Canadiens win a Stanley Cup again or the city gets another baseball team.
While Bouchard failed to make Canadian history by reaching the final, she has the years and talent to pull it off eventually. She is ranked No. 16 and going to go higher. She is the only woman of any nationality to reach the semis at both Slams this year and entered Thursday's match on a 10-match winning streak. She also has been described as the next Sharapova for her mental toughness and approach.
But despite playing an aggressive style, the next Sharapova did not take advantage of a couple of lapses by the current Sharapova, who double-faulted six times in the second set. Bouchard lost two games she led 40-0, including a key fourth game in the third set that left her behind 3-1 instead of even at 2-2.
"I thought I was really close to it at the end of the second set, but I made too many mistakes on important points and important moments," Bouchard said. "I'm a bit disappointed with these moments that I didn't handle well. I didn't play the right level, the level I know I can play. And even then I was really so close, so I would say I have a lot of confidence. I trust that I'm really close to winning, to winning major tournaments, and to be the player I want to be."
Said Sharapova: "It was a very tight second set. I had my chances. ... I was happy that I was able to break her and win that set. It was a great game for me. And in the third, I thought I was the aggressive one. I stepped up, and I was doing things that I had wanted to do, which was I feel maybe I should have done earlier."
Sharapova is always tough in a third set, especially on clay. She is 16-3 in three-set matches at the French Open and has won 19 consecutive three-set matches on clay, last losing four years ago here to Justine Henin. Then again, beating Sharapova on clay is formidable no matter how many sets you play. Since 2012, she has won 93 percent of her matches on the stuff, including Madrid and Stuttgart this season. Six of her past eight titles have been on clay.
In Halep, Sharapova faces someone who is just as tough on clay, though. Like Bouchard, the 22-year-old Halep is a young player who has made great leaps recently, winning both the small tournaments and stepping up her game in the Slams. The highest-ranked player left in the draw at No. 4, Halep beat Petkovic 6-2, 7-6 (4) in the other semifinal. The Romanian is playing some of the best tennis of anybody.
"I'm the highest seed here at Roland Garros, but I think, like I say always, it doesn't matter the ranking," Halep said. "It's just about the game, about the feeling, and about how you can manage the emotions before the match and during the match."
Hmmm. On second thought, perhaps Sharapova better cut any Louvre tours short so she'll be fully prepared for that first set.