Commentary

Schiavone leaves it all on the court

Originally Published: June 1, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

PARIS -- Who says? That was the message sent with each fist-pump, each arm raised in triumph at the end of the women's quarterfinals.

Who says I can't defend my title, asks Francesca Schiavone. She is still here, hitting with the same joy and abandon that carried her to victory last year. Three easy wins, then two roller coasters to reach the semifinals. Schiavone is closer to a repeat than she expected after a lackluster lead-up, but now she is the most accomplished clay-court player left.

"I love tennis when I can express myself. I am transparent, so you can understand how I play and how I feel," she said.

There was no mistaking how Marion Bartoli felt as she exploded in excitement after reaching the final four for the first time: Who says I can't play well in France?

"When [Kuznetsova] missed that forehand, then I was just like, 'My God, I'm in the semifinal of my home Grand Slam.' Finally I can play well here," said the former Wimbledon finalist, now the last French player remaining in the tournament.

"Even if I played the final of Wimbledon, I never felt that excited after a match, to be honest," she said. "It was just so many feelings the same time. The crowd, the wave."

As quirky and individualistic as her kangaroo-like service motion, Bartoli mentioned earlier in the tournament that she has started to feel truly accepted by the French crowds. It has made a big difference.

"The past years I really felt the pressure here," she said. "I was really going to the court without any confidence, to be honest.

"I really thought that this year I should try to take some pleasure, even though it's difficult, because, of course, we are French and we want to do well. I really tell myself, If you use that crowd, if you use that to put some pressure on the other one, maybe you can do well."

With Schiavone's raw emotion and the passionate French crowds rooting for Bartoli, the semifinal could resemble an opera -- but will it be a French or an Italian one?

If that semifinal will be a battle of heart, the other will be a battle of the mind.

Both Maria Sharapova and Li Na have something to prove to the outside world. For Sharapova: Who says I can't play on clay? For Li: Who says I'm a one-final wonder?

But there is another question, one asked only between them: Who said he was your coach?

Thomas Hogstedt switched from working with Li last season to working with Sharapova this year, with Li reportedly learning about the move only after she read about it in the newspapers. Neither has talked about it publicly, and Hogstedt declined an interview request.

It certainly means Sharapova will have plenty of information on her opponent, and perhaps a psychological edge as a result. The two also share a clothing company, an agent and, until now, a dislike of clay.

"After I win the match I was feeling, 'Wow, I can play semis in Roland Garros.' I never think about that before," said Li. "So many people think I'm not so good in clay court, but I think now they should change a little bit."

In Australia, she was cracking up the tennis crowds with jokes about her husband cum coach -- how he was keeping her up at night with his snoring and promising her a shopping spree if she won. But after reaching the final, she lost five of her next six matches and decided to bring in Michael Mortensen, a Danish coach. Shortly after, she reached the semifinals of both the big clay-court warm-up events in Madrid and Rome, and has done the same here.

And even if Sharapova did steal her coach, Li is happy to be facing another fellow big hitter. "I didn't like [to] play like a Spanish player, like topspin, drop-shot, always have to running and hit the ball. I hate that. I like to stand there," she laughed.

Sharapova would express a similar sentiment, but has become stronger and worked hard on her movement since an onslaught of shoulder problems since 2008. There has been enough improvement to get her within two wins of achieving the career Slam. With previous victories at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, winning the French would complete the set. It is also her first Grand Slam semifinal since her win at the Australian Open in 2008.

Another important factor has been the serve. She struggled mightily with double faults when she returned from shoulder surgery, and while they still creep into her game, she is finally hitting the shot with authority and got in 80 percent of her first serves against Andrea Petkovic in the quarterfinals. And after this spring, she has no regrets about making the switch to Hogstedt.

"He's brought a really great work ethic into my tennis, into my practices, a lot of positive energy," she said earlier in the week. "He's been a great new voice for me and something that I needed. When you've had a coach for many, many years, sometimes it's not even about new things that are being said. Maybe sometimes it's the same things, but coming from a different person in a little bit of a different way, gets to you differently.

"Yeah, he's pushed me and believes in me. He's also coached against me, which I like."

Now facing Li, she'll be glad he once coached her opponent.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.