by Isaac Butler
Here’s how everyone thought the women’s side of the French Open would go down: There’d be a few slug-fests here and there and an upset or two, but the whole thing would march relentlessly towards a confrontation between first seed (and candidate for Greatest of All Time) Serena Williams and second seed (and China’s most famous athlete) Li Na. Williams would be the favorite (she’s won ten of their last twelve matches), but there would be glimmers of hope for Li Na fans. One of Williams’s two losses to Li came on Clay, Li Na has won the French, and she’s already hoisted the trophy at the end of a Slam this year. The final would be one kind of story: the two top players in the sport fighting it out, extending their rivalry by another chapter, reinforcing the inevitability of their dominance.
Then Li and Williams both lost by the end of the second round.
In the wake of their ousters, different stories began to emerge, most of them about the next generation of talent. First, there was the young American Taylor Townsend, ranked outside of the top two hundred and given a wildcard into the tournament, showing the promise that recently made her the dominant Girls’ Junior player of her teenaged years. Her run into the third round, classic net attacking game, and seemingly limitless charm brought with it a much-needed conversation about the troubling way that the tennis world covers women’s bodies in general and black women in particular.
Next, a pair of twenty year olds: Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard (ranked 16) and Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza (ranked 35). Bouchard is coming into her own this year, after nibbling at the edges of Next Big Thingness. Muguruza was the kind of story the press love, a photogenic surprise winner (she beat Serena Williams in two uncompetitive sets) who doubles down on an early upset to make a deep run.
As compelling as these stories were, none of these players made it to the final. Instead, the final will feature a classic matchup of archetypes: The Comeback (Maria Sharapova) vs. The Young Gun (Simona Halep).
Owner of a career Slam, two apparel lines and a candy company, Maria Sharapova is so staggeringly famous and has played in the top 10 so consistently, that calling her journey a comeback may seem like hyperbole. Yet for the second time in less than four years, we are watching Sharapova claw her way back to the top of the sport after losing months to surgery. In both her tennis career and her matches, Sharapova seems to relish the comeback and struggle maintaining success. Throughout the French, she’s had to rally from losing first sets again and again, and last summer, she seemed intent on sabotaging herself, making puzzling decisions that included signing on the loathsome Jimmy Conners as her coach. Their working relationship lasted one match.
Sharapova’s second comeback is happening on the same surface (red clay) and at the same tournament (the French Open) as her last. She has been shockingly dominant on clay, losing to only two players on the surface in the last three years. What used to be her worst surface has become her best. And match after match has followed the same pattern: She begins the match nervy, loses her serve early, loses the first set easily, and then claws her way back to a win in the second set, followed by a third set where she dominates. It’s not always beautiful tennis, but it is tense, suspenseful stuff, filled with the kind of arm wrestle momentum shifts that make the sport so exciting.
Maria Sharapova’s game is all blunt force and grit. As she is possessed of a long-limbed beauty and owns two fashion lines, it is shocking to see how ungraceful a player she is. Her movement is notoriously bad, and in between points she turns away from her opponent, walking along the baseline chewing her lip and hunching over like an awkward fifth grader. She is as famous for her trademark scream as she is for her gameplay. When she wins important points she fist bumps, she screams, she doubles over with exuberance as if she is unable to take her own mastery.
Sharapova is a classic offensive baseliner. She hits the ball very hard, sending it flying back across the net very fast, and very deep into the court. The pace and depth of her shots pin her opponents. She returns serve with a fury that might make you think the ball owed her money. She has a classic baseline attacking game, and the physics of clay work to her advantage, absorbing more of the momentum of incoming balls as they bounce, slowing them down just enough to give her more time to get to them, and sending them higher into her strike zone. The only player who can regularly beat her on the surface is Serena Williams, who has beaten her so many times now that calling whatever they have a rivalry seems unfair to dictionaries everywhere.
Sharapova’s opponent is the twenty-two year old Simona Halep of Romania, a rising star in the sport who has worked and worked and worked her way up to a number four ranking without having even been to the finals of a Major. Halep’s rise had been steady before it turned meteoric. She ended 2010 ranked 84th, 2011 and 2012 ranked 47th, and then in 2013 won more titles than anyone not named Serena Williams and jumped up to number 11. Now, she’s in the Top 5 and appears to have the game to stay there.
Halep is the first women’s player to make the finals of French without dropping a set in seven years. When you watch her play, you can see why. Halep is fast and tenacious. She runs down and returns a lot of balls, and she’s able to generate pace and angles all over the court. Like Andre Agassi, she excels in taking the ball “on the rise,” which is to say as soon as it is coming off the court. Despite being small, she doesn’t lack for power. She and Sharapova actually serve at around the same pace. She uses the angles to open up the court and score winners, and her ability to run down almost everything forces her opponents to push harder, making errors more likely.
Halep is a classic counterpuncher. In the men’s game, the largely defensive counterpunching style is currently dominant. Of the Big 4, only Roger Federer is really an attacker, and in the slow sunset of his greatness, he’s doubled down on this strategy, coming to the net whenever he can to shorten the point. In women’s tennis, the opposite is true. The top contenders for titles (Williams, Azarenka, Li Na and Sharapova) are all attacking players. The next generation of up and comers, including Murguruza and Bouchard, are all offensive players as well.
Cementing their contrast in styles, Halep’s personality on court couldn’t be further from Sharapova’s. Unless truly pressed, she’s silent during her matches. Her face remains calm and determined. When she wins, she quickly crosses herself as she runs to the net, barely even smiling until her name is announced as the victor.
Sharapova’s road to the final has taken her through one offensive player after another, and she’s bested them all through sheer force of will, and elevating her game right when it seemed like all hope was lost. This also means she’s played a lot more tennis than Halep, which can be either a blessing or a curse. She also hasn’t had to face a counterpuncher like Halep in this tournament. Halep is playing like a monster right now. It’s hard to tell whether she’s gotten lucky by having opponents fail to play their best, or whether she swiftly demoralizes them with her abilities, but other than the second set of her semifinal match, she hasn’t really been tested. That will change tomorrow. She has also never faced the nerves of a Major final or a crowd that loves her opponent like the Roland Garros audience will love Sharapova. There’s also history to consider. Sharapova owns their head to head 3-0, including one of her Comeback Queen wins less than a month ago in Madrid, where she lost the first set 1-6 and then went on to win the next two 6-2 and 6-3.
Saturday’s final will bring together two players who couldn’t be more different in terms of style, temperament or place in their careers. Despite being only twenty seven, Sharapova is the grizzled veteran aiming for another shot at the bigtime, while Halep, only five years younger, plays the scrappy up-and-comer, angling for a shot at the big time.