Maria Sharapova celebrates her win over Kaia Kanepi in the quarterfinals.
© Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS -- It's not often that Maria Sharapova gets off the grounds of Roland Garros or away from her hotel room and experiences Paris cafe society, but its leisurely pace attracts her, so maybe in 10 years or so, when she is retired, she can kick back, sip espressos and watch the world go by.
"Who wouldn't want that lifestyle?" Sharapova asked after her 6-2, 6-3 victory over Kaia Kanepi in the quarterfinals. It's great to me. I could eat at L'Avenue every single day, have the escargot and the little strawberries they have for dessert, gain like 20 pounds. But that's all right. The [French] walk everywhere, and they bike. That would help."
Sharapova doesn't have to worry about gaining pounds this fortnight, as she spent plenty of time on court shedding calories. In the fourth round, the 2006 US Open champion had to spend three hours on court on a windy day to repel the hard-hitting Klara Zakopalova. On Wednesday, she pushed herself forward time and time again to take time away from the powerful Kanepi.
The Los Angeles and Florida homeowner is now into her third Roland Garros semifinal, and for the first time, she is not dead tired after having burned the soles of her shoes sprinting and slipping on the red clay.
This time, the 25-year-old really has the look of a champion to be: her legs are stronger, her surgically repaired shoulder is holding up, she is better balanced, and she is trusting her game again.
While Sharapova made majors strides during the 2011 clay-court season last year, her game was still in transition, as she and her coach of a few months, Thomas Hogstedt, were still working on what style she should employ. Consequently, while he encouraged her to add a little spin to her strokes and dominate more points from the back court, she began to back away from the net and was not employing her swing volley, which she calls her favorite shot ("because I don't have to bend my knees. I can just kind of jump up and hit it.)"
While Sharapova is not comfortable around the net, she has once again grown secure taking balls out of the air and going for the corners. There are still times when she backs up after because she doesn’t trust her standard volley and doesn’t read passing shots very well, but during this clay-court season, she has taken many more balls out of the air.
"It's just having that confidence of moving forward and not waiting for another shot to come back and also recognizing what you did to maybe get in the position of moving forward," Sharapova said. "If you feel like you opened up the court but maybe don't believe that you did or you're not looking for the next shot, then a lot of it is about just doing it. Sometimes, you hit a few good shots, and you're like, 'Well, I'm playing so well, but everything is coming back. Sometimes it's not so much about the opponent, but it's really about you and getting in there and hitting it."
Women's tennis has had some great rivalries in the past and some pretty good ones today, but because of the depth of the tour, it's rare for the top players to face each other in one major after another. So the fact that the three-time Grand Slam titlist will go up against Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova for the third time in the last four Grand Slams is great news for the WTA and fans everywhere.
The two play each other very closely, with Kvitova winning a tight two-setter in her maiden run to the Wimbledon title last year and Sharapova edging the left-handed Czech 6-4 in the third set in the Australian Open semis. Kvitova also took a win over Sharapova last fall in Tokyo, when the Russian retired with an ankle injury, and in April on indoor red clay in Stuttgart, Sharapova scraped past her, 6-4, 7-6 (3).
If Sharapova wins the match, she'll snare the No. 1 ranking form Victoria Azarenka. If Kvitova wins the contest, she'll counter critics who say that she is too heavy footed and not in good enough shape to win a major on dirt.
"She's an extremely tough opponent -- someone that I have had good success in our last couple of previous meetings, but always tough matches," Sharapova said. "The last one in Stuttgart was a tough two setter for me. She had opportunities in that second set to win it, so she seems to be playing really well. When she's confident when she's hitting the ball, she's quite dangerous, so obviously it's going to be another level. I hope that I can raise my level, as well."
As talented as she is, the 22-year-old Kvitova cannot seem to put together more than a good three-month stretch. After winning 2011 Wimbledon, she bombed out of the US Open Series for the second straight year. She looked great in winning the year-end WTA Championships and played reasonably well in Australia, but then she became sick and hurt and only reached one semifinal in her next five tournaments.
But after surviving qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, the Czech feels she is rounding into form.
"I lost in the last matches, so I hope that I will remember something from the matches and try what I can to win against her," Kvitova said. "She's playing very well. She has a great season right now, and she's very tough opponent. It will be a big change for me."
Sharapova has won 17 of her 18 matches on clay this year, and if she wins the title on Saturday, she will complete a career Grand Slam.
Then maybe she can plop down in a cafe and engage in her favorite pursuit -- people watching.
"It's the best here," she said. "So eclectic. Maybe Tokyo is up there, too. I love people watching in Tokyo. It's pretty unique. Paris is another level. I wish I could take everyone's style and put it in so many cities around the world we visit. I love the way that people go about their lives and the way they sit at cafes like a few centimeters from the cars going by. It's like, is that really nice or what?"