First-week upsets are fun, but when it comes to a tennis slam, those upsets often lead to dreadful matchups in the quarterfinals and beyond, when lower-seeded players who advanced because of upsets or imploding brackets get shellacked by elite players. You typically have an entertainment budget in tournaments of any kind -- spend it early, and you don't have much left late.
In this sense, the French Open women's draw could have gone off the rails when Serena Williams and Li Na both lost in early rounds. Only two of the top nine women's seeds, and three of the top 14, reached the quarterfinals. This could have resulted in a series of matchups involving overachievers and clay-court specialists (say, a finals matchup between Carla Suarez Navarro and Sara Errani), and while this is aesthetically pleasing for some, it wouldn't exactly have done much to further tennis' reach and exposure.
Instead, the French Open semifinals will feature two fascinating matchups between big names, engaging personalities, up-and-comers, and creative, diverse styles of tennis. The draw of the Maria Sharapova-Eugenie Bouchard semifinal is blatantly obvious -- the tour's best brawler (Sharapova) against the tour's most promising young brawler (20-year-old Bouchard), both of whom are marketable bombshells. But the second semifinal, decided on Wednesday, is equally appealing.
After a lengthy rain delay, Simona Halep and Andrea Petkovic each punched their semifinal tickets with quick work of two players who have achieved high heights on clay courts. First, Petkovic prevented Errani from reaching her third consecutive French semifinal with a 6-2, 6-2 shellacking. Petkovic landed nearly every first serve (41 of 45), pounced on every punchless Errani second serve (she won 10 of 12 points), and took down the most specialized of clay-court specialists in just 63 minutes.
Halep, meanwhile, furthered a surge that began quite a while ago, whipping 2009 French champion Svetlana Kuznetsova by an identical 6-2, 6-2 score.
As Colin Davy told us in his women's preview, thanks to fantastic recent form, Halep was given a very good shot at reaching the semis and beyond. Still, she has dominated at a nearly Nadalian level; she's won all 10 sets she's played and has dropped more than two games in only four of those sets.
A limping Kuznetsova had no chance. Kuznetsova has a great offensive game, but managed only 11 winners against the speedy Halep, but Halep's game goes beyond defense. She has turned into an Aga Radwanska with extra pop and a dose of Federer-esque "I didn't know that angle existed" shot-making. As the match wore on, it was clear that Kuznetsova was ailing and limited, but Halep's ability to wrong-foot Kuznetsova on nearly every single shot was incredible. With a chance to serve out the match, Halep tightened up, double-faulting three times in four points. But she grinned, rallied and closed out the match, as she has been doing for most of the last year.
Halep's game really is fun to watch. She runs her opponent ragged, which isn't fun in and of itself, but she does it with creativity and some power. She makes announcers gasp and chuckle with some of the angles she snaps off, and she is currently the best combination of finesse and strength on the women's tour.
Everything turned around for Halep almost overnight, as documented in this lovely Grantland piece by Louisa Thomas:
She was small, sometimes half a foot shorter than her opponents. Except for some unwanted attention after surgery, she was unknown. She was inconsequential. She was always on the road, losing in an early round, then jumping on a plane to fly somewhere else to lose again. The stress affected her body. It slowed her down. Sometimes, she would ask her feet to move and nothing would happen. She was often injured. She was scared. She wasn’t improving. For the first four months of 2013, she won back-to-back matches only once.
Then, last May, she came into the Italian Open, just before Roland Garros, as a qualifier, ranked No. 64. She won seven matches in eight days, including against three top-20 players. Something was different. But what? She credits a change in her mind-set. "What changed was that I allowed myself to be relaxed on the court by taking the pressure off," Halep said. "I told myself to enjoy it and play with pleasure." That is, of course, the kind of thing that athletes say. But the alchemy was real. Perhaps this is what pleasure is: She stopped hoping her opponent would beat herself. Instead, she started encouraging her opponent to set herself on fire.
It's hard to imagine a change in mindset resulting in such a drastic change in results, but here we are. It took Federer some time to harness his tools as well, but when things came together, there was no turning back. (And yes, that's an unfair comparison; congrats on your semifinal, Simona, now we expect you to win 17 slams just like Roger!) Like Radwanska, Halep plays a crafty game. She is only 5'6 and will never possess the imposing physical traits of a Serena Williams, Li Na or Victoria Azarenka. But she isn't all about shot placement and tricks. She is an all-around player with offense and defense, and her rise is exciting.
The 26-year old Petkovic, meanwhile, is a combination of redemption tale and engaging personality. She has one of the most engaging Twitter accounts in the sport (it's always nice when athletes remind you of actual human beings), and about a year ago she began a remarkable comeback from a slew of injuries. After reaching the quarterfinals of three of four slams in 2011 and climbing to ninth in the WTA rankings, she suffered injuries to her back, ankle, and knee in 2012 and missed three-quarters of the year. Her 2013 comeback was slow and spotty, and after she failed to qualify for the French Open last May, she briefly considered retirement:
"I was putting so much pressure on myself to get back where I was, and it wasn't fun any more. I was just forcing. Everything was work and hard. It wasn't what it was, why I started playing tennis.
"I started playing tennis because I love it and it's a big part of my life. It brought so much to me and my family.
"I think it brings so many people together, and it's a nice, a beautiful thing, and it's not something that is ugly and hard and difficult.
"That's what it was for me when I came back from my injuries.
"My footwork was off, my strokes were bad. My serve was bad. I hated it. That's why I wanted to stop. After that, I won a tournament, luckily, so I didn't, and I kept doing what I did.
"And now I'm here and it's a nice reward."
The long-limbed Petkovic is 5'11 and plays about 6'2, and she had far too much offense for Errani to handle. And now she draws an opponent who has experienced an even greater breakthrough in the last 12 months.
Halep and Petkovic have played three times, twice on clay. Petkovic defeated Halep in Bucharest back in 2009, and Halep turned the tables with wins in Nurnberg (clay) and Tokyo (hard) last year. Halep is the obvious favorite here, but if Petkovic maintains her quarterfinal form, she'll have a solid chance. And in Sharapova, Bouchard, Halep and Petkovic, the WTA has landed