Roland Garros: Li d. Azarenka
Tennis is getting older. The last teenager in the women’s draw lost yesterday, and instead of the supposed up-and-comers, we have a quartet of familiar names in the French Open semifinals: Francesca Schiavone, Marion Bartoli, Maria Sharapova and now Li Na, who showed once again that she is definitely getting better with age in her 7-5, 6-2 defeat of No. 4 seed and popular pick for the title, Victoria Azarenka.
Post-mortems galore will be done on the collapse of Azarenka’s title hopes as she once again failed to progress beyond the quarterfinals of a Slam. There’s definitely some justification for that; after cruising through the first few rounds, she looked tactically clueless at times against Li, a player who more than held her own from the baseline. Azarenka increasingly made the wrong choices at the wrong moments as the match went on.
But Li’s play was as impressive as Azarenka’s was disappointing, and to ignore that would do the sixth seed a signal disservice. The first set was a tight affair up until the last moments; with one break apiece and Azarenka serving at 4-5, both women had won 33 points. After two more solid service holds, something special was required to separate them, and it was Li who provided it. I think of her, perhaps unfairly, as a player who goes down the lines as hard and as often as possible, but she brought variation today and found the angles. After drawing Azarenka into the net with a well-timed drop shot, Li picked up the ball from her shoelaces and landed it right on the baseline behind her opponent. On the next point, she went back behind Azarenka, leaving the Belarussian floundering, and took her first set point with an almost identical backhand cross-court winner. It looked effortless, but it hit Azarenka like a punch to the solar plexus.
Azarenka immediately broke back in the second set, but as her play worsened—a woeful service game handed the break straight back—Li’s level of execution and intensity remained constant. She continued to work her shots cross-court and waited for the winner to arise organically, consolidating her service break to love and then making mincemeat of her opponent’s attempts to stay in the match. When she forced the final error from Azarenka, there were no histrionics, just a beaming smile. She won like a grown-up, the same as she had played.
The stage is set for what should be a brilliant semifinal between Li and Sharapova—who will have Li’s former coach, Thomas Hogstedt, in her corner. The first Chinese woman to reach the semi-finals at Roland Garros, Li will be carrying the hopes of millions on her shoulders. She looks more than equal to it.