Maria Sharapova entered the Grand Slam winners’ circle again last year when she won the title at Roland Garros. She recovered from shoulder and serve problems to build toward that victory. Sharapova reached the 2011 French Open semifinal and 2012 Australian Open final. She absorbed one-sided losses, but kept pushing toward victory. Sharapova’s joy at winning a major on clay was moving. Since that time, Maria has continued to post strong results such as a Silver Medal and US Open semifinal appearance in 2012 and an Australian Open semifinal appearance in 2013. She is back in the French Open final ready to defend her most unlikely Grand Slam title. She just won back-to-back nerve testing matches to get to this point. She now faces a task that seems beyond daunting.
Serena’s Turning Point
Serena Williams lost in the first round at the French Open last year. It was a shocking defeat due to her winning streak entering the event. Serena seemed to be a champion who either melted down at key moments of the US Open or who lost to inferior players on clay. A noted tennis journalist described her 2012 Roland Garros performance as resembling a golfer with the yips. After that loss, Serena won Wimbledon in singles and doubles, won gold medals in singles and doubles (destroying Sharapova in the gold medal match) and winning the US Open in singles. Were it not for rolling her ankle in Melbourne she might be playing for a second “Serena Slam” tomorrow. Serena is number 1 in the world playing the clear number 2 who is also the defending champion. Serena could win her second overall French Open title and first French Open title in over 1 decade.
Maria Sharapova is 2-13 versus Serena Williams including a 12 match losing streak. Sharapova has not beaten Serena since 2004. The losses have come at big venues with a lot at stake. Many of the matches have been terribly one-sided. Even at Miami earlier this year when Sharapova won her first set off of Serena since 2008 ended in a third set bagel. These numbers make me think that unless Serena is less than 100% physically speaking that she will win this match even if Sharapova has a great stretch.
Why the Disparity?
Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are the two best players in the world right now. Sharapova generally wins by taking control of a point early with either a big return or powerful serve. Once Sharapova controls a point footwork is less about reacting than stepping into her preferred shots. Serena disrupts this game plan in two ways. First, Serena serves and returns big and takes control of points. She forces Sharapova to react and play defensive tennis far more often than the Russian would like to. Sharapova is quite tall and struggles with mobility, footwork and changing directions. Secondly, Serena is a great mover with great reflexes. If Sharapova gets control of a point and hits a big shot, Serena can often react in such a way as to drive Sharapova out of a commanding position on the court to a neutral or defensive position in a given point. Serena does both of these things often enough that Maria struggles mightily in their matches. For these reasons, my prediction is not going to shock anyone.
These two players are pretty evenly matched. When Azarenka gets her teeth into Sharapova’s game, she can roll her more famous opponent. However, Vika is not as comfortable on clay as she is on a hard court so a one-sided drubbing seems unlikely. I think Sharapova will win in two tight sets. If Azarenka wins this match she will be the most under the radar player in recent history who is contending for the first two legs of the Grand Slam. Vika can also stake a claim to number one (computers be damned) if she wins the first two slams of 2013. They both have a lot to play for, but I think Sharapova survived her set of poor tennis versus Jankovic. As a fan, I’d like to see Azarenka win, but I think her clay court comfort level is not where it needs to be to win.
Errani will use every tool in her repertoire. I expect her to loop shots and play backboard tennis at times. I also expect her to sneak into the net at times. Errani deserves a lot of credit for her play over the past 52 weeks. Still, Serena Williams is too strong and on too much of a roll to not win this match. I think Serena wins in straight sets, but Errani will make one of the two sets interesting.
Hopefully my picks are better than they were for the other quarterfinal matches. The defending champion faces a tricky veteren in Jankovic. If Jelena can make Maria move and make footing and footwork an issue, an upset if quite possible. Jankovic’s problem is that her serve is not strong enough to make a few shaky serve games from Sharapova matter too much. I think Sharapova wins in straight sets with one set being close.
3 Victoria Azarenka vs. 12 Maria Kirilenko
Vika is the only player on tour who could win a calendar year slam, but is flying under the radar due to Serena’s dominant form and her own questionable history on clay. I think Kirilenko will win a set in this match, but Azarenka is likely to overcome some surface aversion and advance. Azarenka setting up a match with Sharapova would be akin to a ladder match determining who is number two on a tennis team.
5 Rafael Nadal vs. Pablo Andujar – If Andujar is ever going to win against Rafa, this is his chance. Nadal played 2 tough sets and a 3rd set versus Ferrer. Nadal is also seemingly a little rusty. The altitude in Madrid has never been to Rafa’s liking. Still, I don’t think anyone sanely picks an upset here.
6 Tomas Berdych vs. 15 Stanislas Wawrinka – Berdych to this point inb 2013 has outplayed Roger Federer and looks like a top 5 player. Wawrinka is on a serious roll. This is close to a 50-50 match, but I think Warinka is currently playing the best tennis of his career.
1 Serena Williams vs. 7 Sara Errani - Serena seems ripe for an upset, and Errani could do it based upon her runner-up finish at Roland Garros in 2012. Recent form seems to have little impact on how Serena will play in a given situation. I think Williams is close enough to the finish line in Madrid to win this semifinal.
2 Maria Sharapova vs. 16 Ana Ivanovic - Ivanovic has put together some decent results at different times since her brief stint at number one. I hope she gets back to the top five, but I am not going to bank on such a rebound at this stage of her career.
Quarterfinals David Ferrer (3) vs. Jurgen Melzer - Jurgen could win, but Ferrer is a guy who tends to win the matches he is supposed to win.
Gilles Simon (11) vs. Tommy Haas (15) – Simon is the player who may be fatigued. Haas beat Federer at Halle last year and Nole in Miami this year. Not bad for a guy in my age range. Still, I think Gilles will grind out a 3 set win.
I think Nadal completes a remarkable comeback by defeating a player who has given him some trouble. Delpo is obviously on a roll beating Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in succession. For JMDP to win he will need to serve big so that he holds routinely. That would give JMDP the opportunity to take big swings and pressure Rafa’s serve. I don’t think that happens. Rafa is showing just why he is one of the greatest ever. He was dominating last Spring and early Summer. He gets hurt and misses 7 months. He comes back and is winning at a high rate again.
Wozniacki is making a move back toward the top 5. That is a great story, but it is hard for me to pick a player who lives and dies on her opponent’s mistakes. Sharapova may lose, but her play is going to determine who wins. I’ll take the agressor to take the title.
Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (8) – Et tu Tsonga? Doubtful. Nole advances to the semis.
Andy Murray (3) vs. Juan Martin del Potro (7) – If Murray is still nuring his Australian Open loss, Delpo has a great chance at an upset. My guess is Murray is slowly moving toward the Wimbledon-US Open stretch with hopes of a decent run on clay. Therefore, an unburdened Murray advances.
Maria Sharapova (2) vs. Maria Kirilenko (13) – Kirilenko could win, but the odds are heavily in favor of Sharapova advancing.
Angelique Kerber (4) vs. Caroline Wozniacki (8) – I see Caro building on her win over Azarenka with a win here.
Na Li did defeat Maria Sharapova in the 2011 French Open semifinal en route to her lone Grand Slam title. Sharapova has since captured the French Open title and is destroying her 2013 competition. Na Li could win especially if she can find a way to pressure Sharapova’s serve. Also, if she can make Sharapova move, her chances of victory rise. The reality I see is that Maria Sharapova will advance as she is in the zone. If Na Li can’t find a way to make Sharapova uncomfortable, this could be pretty one-sided.
Victoria Azarenka (BLR) 
Sloane Stephens (USA) 
Stephens pulled the upset of the tournament. Not having a day of rest will likely help keep her from freezing under a the weight of the situation. Still, I think Vika is likely to win even if Stephens is playing quite well. Vika has a chance to win this event, help cement her #1 status and move back into the center of the tennis world. She has a lot of opportunities to play for something rather than just defend points given that she is #1 and the defending champion.
Na Li (CHN)  vs. Agnieszka Radwanska (POL)  – This all comes down to who is in form. If Na Li is playing at her 2011 level, she will advance. If Radwanska and Li play at their 2012 levels, Radwanska wins. I’ll go with more recent history and pick Radwanska to win (see 2013 video clip for very recent history).
Ekaterina Makarova (RUS)  vs. Maria Sharapova (RUS)  – Makarova has played well to beat Kerber and reach the quarterfinal round. Sharapova is crushing everyone she plays. For Makarova to win, she will need to return well, extend points and force Sharapova to hit on the run. I don’t see the Sharapova train slowing down enough to lose here.