Sara Errani, Samantha Stosur short and sweet
PARIS -- It's definitely a big girls' world in pro tennis, as many of today's top players look tall enough to play small forward in the WNBA.
Three-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova is 6-foot-2. Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champion, is a solid 6-foot. And 2012 Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka would inch across the 6-foot line, too, if she stood up super-straight. They're tall with great wingspans, and they smack the ball hard using the natural gifts they were born with.
And Sharapova and Kvitova are still alive in the French Open, on track for a potential semifinal clash.
But what do you do if you're shorter, like 5-foot-4 Sara Errani or 5-7 Samantha Stosur, and you want to compete for a Grand Slam title?
Errani and Stosur, who will face each other in the semifinals, say they play bigger than their size by using their heart, smarts and strength. Errani, the 21st seed, upset No. 10 Angelique Kerber, 6-3, 7-6 (2), in their quarterfinal match Tuesday. Stosur, the sixth seed, easily handled unseeded Dominika Cibulkova, 6-4. 6-1.
And it should be noted, Kerber stands 3 inches taller than Errani, and Stosur has 4 inches on Cibulkova.
"I have to make other things, maybe with the head or maybe with [the] physical," Errani said Tuesday, explaining in her Italian-accented English how she approaches playing with her height disadvantage. "I have to be fast. I have to be resistant. Other things maybe [too], no? I try to make other things, to make the power not important."
Errani's fight and smarts, and Stosur's physical strength and power game, were both on display in the quarterfinals. Stosur simply overpowered the petite Cibulkova, outright driving her off the court at times.
Cibulkova said she knew she couldn't compete with Stosur's potent groundstrokes and kick serve. Stosur deliberately spun her balls high or wide to Cibulkova, knowing it would challenge her smaller opponent's strike zone and range.
"Her topspin and her serve, I mean, she played like a man," Cibulkova said. "And it's really hard to play against a man. It was driving me crazy on the court today. So it was really, really hard. Really tough. ... Her kick [serve], she gets me out of the court so much, so then I cannot do nothing."
Stosur, 28, had a bit of sympathy for her opponent, as she has also suffered some tough times on Court Philippe Chatrier. She lost the 2010 French Open final to Francesca Schiavone, learning the valuable lesson to try to play aggressively at all times. Stosur capitalized on her next Grand Slam final, winning the 2011 U.S. Open.
"I find it a lot easier to play that way than the way that most of the girls play," Stosur said of her unusually big topspin, kick-serving game for a woman. "So I think that a big part of the serving factor is when I was young, I had a coach that maybe saw the potential in me to be able to hit that kick serve.
From 10, 11, 12 years old, [I] worked on it, worked on it and worked on it. As you get older, and you get stronger and get bigger, it becomes more and more effective. ... And then the spin and all that, just kind of growing with my game and working with [coach] David [Taylor]. [It's] really improved the last four or five years that we've been together."
While Stosur barely needed to break a sweat in her 90-minute romp over Cibulkova, Errani had to use her head and her fighting spirit to oust Kerber. This was the 29th time Errani has played against a top-10 player, but it was the first time she came out as the winner.
Errani, who came into the French Open ranked 24th, will also be heavily tested by Stosur. She has never beaten Stosur in five matches, with the last loss coming in straight sets in Rome the week before play started at Roland Garros.
Errani, 25, may need to take another page out of her tactically driven playbook to defeat Stosur. Errani purposefully moved Kerber around, putting her in awkward positions with her effective drop shot. Errani would lure Kerber to the net, with Kerber many times getting to the dying drop shot after a dead sprint. One small problem despite Kerber's efforts: Her desperation stab returns were weak, and Errani was usually in perfect position to deflect them back into the wide-open court.
Kerber was clearly frustrated by the manipulation, but couldn't do anything to prevent it. The second set was a battle. Kerber went up 5-4, and had two chances to serve for the set before eventually going out with a whimper in the tiebreaker.
Errani has made her name off her ability to grind, something that's propelled her to becoming Italy's top female player. And this is the first time she's reached the semifinals in a Grand Slam.
"The match, the tournament -- I'm very happy for how I play," Errani said. "I'm very happy [about] the fight, of course. ... I want to fight every match, every point. So I'm happy more maybe for the tennis, because normally the other things I feel I do the maximum every time. But of course, [Kerber] is a really strong player. To beat her in a Grand Slam, in Roland Garros, is good."
Sometimes you don't have to be tall, as long as your heart is big.