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2013 French Open: Women's semifinal previews

The top four players on clay are the last four remaining in the women's draw. What happens now?

Matthew Stockman

Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani

Matchup Seed AB Rank AB Clay Rank Head-to-Head Wins Head-to-Head on Clay Avg. opp. Rank (AB clay) % of games won thus far
Williams 1 1 1 5 2 63.4 75.9%
Errani 5 7 4 0 0 57.4 66.7%

In the last 54 weeks or so, Sara Errani is 11-1 at Roland Garros. She had a lot of points to defend from last year's French Open finals appearance if she wanted to stay in the WTA top five, and damned if she hasn't done so. She has taken out two tough clay-courters in the last two rounds, too -- she overcame a first-set injury to knock off Carla Suarez Navarro, then she took down Agnieszka Radwanska in straight sets in the quarterfinals. She is solid on hard courts, but fantastic on clay, moving her opponent around, setting up great angles, and playing stellar clay-court defense.

Of course, to reach her second straight French final, she'll have to pull off probably the best win of her career. Last year she got Sam Stosur, an enigmatic big-hitter, in the semifinals; this time around, she gets Serena Williams. Williams hadn't reached the French semis in 10 years but overcame a game Svetlana Kuznetsova in three sets on Tuesday to get here. Williams dominated most of the way (she won 55 percent of the overall points, which is usually good for a straight-set win), but a blip in the middle of the match took this one to three. She won six of the first seven games, dropped eight of the next 11, then one six of the final seven to close out the match. She has conquered some Roland Garros demons, and now the only thing blocking her path to the finals is an opponent she has beaten five of five times.

2008 Rome (Clay): Williams 6-4, 6-3
2009 Sydney (Hard): Williams 6-1, 6-2
2009 Dubai (Hard): Williams 4-6, 6-2, 6-0
2012 U.S. Open (Hard): Williams 6-1, 6-2
2013 Madrid (Clay): Williams 7-5, 6-2

Biggest Factor for Williams: Dominate on returns. When these two met in Madrid in May, Williams dominated Errani's serve, winning 56 percent of Errani's second-serve points and 50 percent of her first-serve points. She broke Errani five times in 10 service games, a ridiculous total; and while Errani is good enough on clay to break Serena a few times, too, she can't do it that much. If Williams is winning 45 percent (or more) of Errani's first-serve points, Errani basically can't win.

Biggest Factor for Errani: O-F-F-E-N-S-E. Errani is not necessarily known for her power, but she's got a lovely offensive game, as evidenced by the fact that she hit 30 winners in her two-set win over Radwanska. (She also had 25 errors.) Errani was landing her first serve and dictating points against Radwanska, a perfectly solid defensive player. Serena, however, is a different experience. A better offensive player, Kuznetsova hit just 19 winners in three sets against Williams. One has to figure that Errani needs her winners-to-games ratio (30 to 23 against Radwanska) to be at least 1.0 or greater for her to win, but against Williams that will be very difficult to accomplish. You can sometimes get away with simply playing Human Backstop and hoping for Serena to commit a ton of errors, but that strategy hasn't worked much in the last 12 months. You need to beat Serena; she's not going to just defeat herself.

Prediction: Williams in two. Not only has Errani taken just one of 11 sets from Williams, but she has only won more than two games in two of the last nine sets. There is nothing she does better than Serena; if she's ever going to take Williams down, it will probably be at Roland Garros, but it's not a very smart bet.

Maria Sharapova vs. Victoria Azarenka

Matchup Seed AB Rank AB Clay Rank Head-to-Head Wins Head-to-Head on Clay Avg. opp. Rank (AB clay) % of games won thus far
Sharapova 2 3 2 5 2 60.6 63.5%
Azarenka 3 2 3 7 0 50.8 68.4%

A year ago, the main storyline of the women's French Open was Maria Sharapova conquering clay. She once called herself a "cow on ice" on the surface, and she had only advanced past the French Open quarterfinals once in five years before taking out Petra Kvitova in the semis and Errani in the finals to complete her career grand slam.

This year, it's Azarenka's turn. The twice-reigning Australian Open champion reached her first semifinal at Roland Garros, dispatching Maria Kirilenko in straight sets. She had been knocked out in the first round three times in seven tries, but she is getting more comfortable on the surface. Or, as she put it:

Quizzed on her feelings about playing on clay, Azarenka said: "I still don't have any ring on my finger.

"But I feel like we made a step forward. We are moving in together. Kind of that type of a relationship is moving forward and see what happens after."

She will face a rather familiar foe in Sharapova. The two battled six times in 2012, and while Sharapova won only two, she also took the only matchup on clay.

2007 Moscow (Carpet): Azarenka 7-6, 6-2
2009 Los Angeles (Hard): Sharapova 6-7, 6-4, 6-2
2009 Beijing (Hard): Sharapova 6-3, 6-7, 7-5
2010 Stanford (Hard): Azarenka 6-4, 6-1
2011 Miami (Hard): Azarenka 6-1, 6-4
2011 Rome (Clay): Sharapova 4-6, 3-0, RETIRED
2012 Australian Open (Hard): Azarenka 6-3, 6-0
2012 Indian Wells (Hard): Azarenka 6-2, 6-3
2012 Stuttgart (Clay): Sharapova 6-1, 6-4
2012 U.S. Open (Hard): Azarenka 3-6, 6-2, 6-4
2012 Beijing (Hard): Azarenka 6-3, 6-1
2012 Istanbul (Hard): Sharapova 6-4, 6-2

In the styles-make-fights department, these two usually play a pretty offense-heavy game against each other, trading blows from the baseline. That matchup has been great for Azarenka, but the extra bit of bounce and defense provided to you on clay has benefited Sharapova greatly. Sharapova had to grind to get past Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals, and she should be more than ready to do so again here.

Biggest Factor for Sharapova: Land the first serve. She knocked in 63 percent in her clay win in Stuttgart last year, winning 84 percent of her first-serve points. She loses her serving rhythm frequently, and Azarenka has been known to have a field day against her second serve -- in Beijing, Sharapova won just six of 21 second-serve points and was broken five times in eight service games. There will probably be quite a few breaks in this match, but Sharapova's first serves will dictate a good portion of this match before Azarenka even takes a swing.

Biggest Factor for Azarenka: Hope the backhand holds up. Azarenka has lost just one set in this tournament -- 6-4 in the first to No. 31 Alize Cornet in the third round; in that set, Cornet picked on the Azarenka backhand. Azarenka committed four unforced errors on the backhand, committed five forced errors, and hit two winners. In the final two sets, she hit 10 backhand winners to eight unforced and five forced errors. Azarenka has gotten the best of Sharapova in neutral rallies over the past couple of years; if Sharapova is able to spot a weakness and lean on it, the advantage goes her way.

Prediction: Azarenka in three. The gut says Sharapova, but the brain points out that Azarenka has won a higher percentage of games against a better set of opponents. And if Sharapova falls asleep like she did against Jankovic (she lost the first set, 6-0, hitting five winners to 20 errors), the match will be over before she has a chance to wake up. That she ground her way through to the semis without strong form is impressive, but she won't get a mulligan in the semis.