Commentary

Experience pays for Schiavone, Li

Updated: June 2, 2011, 1:58 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Sometimes, when golfers age past their prime, they get the yips. Those three-foot putts they once drained without a thought take on a higher degree of difficulty. It happens in tennis, too, particularly on the women's side, where the second serve is a window to the uncertain soul.

For two years, Maria Sharapova has been doing and saying all the right things during her comeback from a serious shoulder injury. On Thursday, a bright, blustery day at Roland Garros, she found herself in position to reach her first Grand Slam final in more than three years.

But she simply didn't have the nerve. Or perhaps it really was a matter of having too much.

Sharapova, struggling with her serve in the gusting wind on Court Philippe Chatrier, served up 10 double faults to Li Na of China. When the last one found the top of the net -- and you could see it coming 100 kilometers away -- Li was a 6-4, 7-5 semifinals winner.

On Saturday, Li -- who has reached her second consecutive major final -- will play defending champion Francesca Schiavone, who handled France's top-ranked player, Marion Bartoli, 6-3, 6-3.

Like most of Schiavone's opponents, Bartoli hit the ball harder, but the Italian's defense eventually led to exasperation; Bartoli broke down and made errors. Schiavone is a joy to watch on clay -- it was almost as if she were skiing down a mountain through heavy powder -- and her one-handed backhand is a throwback stroke.

"I know you are a little bit pissed, because she was a French player and you are French," Schiavone said, addressing the crowd after the match. "But you have to understand. Of course, the experience to play in the final another time is a dream come true. Will be really tough, but this is tennis: One has to win."

In her on-court interview, Li was asked what she was thinking on match point.

"You know she has a huge, big serve," the exuberant Li said. "I was like, 'Please, double-fault.'"

She meant no disrespect; Li is a truth-teller. At the age of 29, she is inexplicably playing the best tennis of her life. Growing up, the French Open was the only major she didn't dream of winning. The shifting sands of burnt sienna are least conducive to her powerful game; in eight years as a professional, she has never won a clay-court title. But on this day, her opponent was even less comfortable, lunging -- sometimes lurching -- along the baseline in her size 11 shoes.

One point, in particular, framed Li's athletic advantage -- and Sharapova's inability (or unwillingness) to take something off her fastball. With Sharapova serving at 4-5 to stay in the first set, a double fault and two errors gave Li three set points. On the second, she scurried from side to side, retrieving several shots that looked like winners off the racket. Sharapova, moving forward, contemplated a sitter and a half-open court. But her lashing forehand clipped the tape and careened wide.

"I had my share of chances in the first set, I just didn't take them," Sharapova explained later, voicing only one regret. "Maybe, considering the conditions, trying to go for too big of second serves.

"After not being in this stage of a Grand Slam for a long time, I'm proud of what I've achieved. Obviously, it's disappointing. Good retail therapy and I'll be fine. I'm not retiring or something just because I got to the semifinals."

Li lost in straights sets to Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open final. That lesson, she said, will help her Saturday.

"Because Melbourne is first time to the final, you didn't have any experience before," Li said. "So you didn't know what happened, what I should do on the final. But this time, is second time to the final. Of course, you know what you should do.

"So yeah, this time I know what I should do in the final." Schiavone and Li have only met three times in their long careers, with the two splitting four matches. But -- and this is a big but -- Schiavone beat Li here last year in the third round. That 6-4, 6-2 result -- plus a run of 13 straight match wins at Roland Garros -- will give Schiavone a great deal of confidence heading into Saturday's match.

She would be the first woman to win back-to-back titles since Justine Henin won three straight from 2005-07.

"On Saturday I will go on the court enjoying everything, saying thanks for everything," Schiavone said. "And then, play tennis. Sometimes we forget to play tennis."

As we grow older, we do tend to forget things. This final, with their combined years of 60 years, 79 days, is the oldest in a Grand Slam singles event since Jana Novotna and Nathalie Tauziat met at Wimbledon 13 years ago.

"It means the years can help a lot, the experience," Schiavone said. "Maybe we are changing a little bit the age. We used to have young champions, like Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters.

"Is like the wine. The more it stays in bottle, is much, much better."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.