With two of the most telegenic players in the game competing for a place in the French Open final, all eyes and lenses will be turned to Court Philippe Chatrier on Thursday.
Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard both earned their quarter-final victories the hard way. In fact, each woman was just a handful of points away from exiting the tournament entirely. Sharapova trailed Garbine Muguruza by a set and 4-5, while Bouchard was a break down in the deciding set of her match with Carla Suarez Navarro. Check out the Sharapova vs Bouchard Head to Head.
It was mental strength that put the brakes on an all-Spanish semi-final. Sharapova did just enough, just in time, to wrestle the momentum from Muguruza. After a blowout 6-1 fist set in which she struggled to hit with rhythm and depth, the 2012 French Open champion refused to blink, sneaked the second 7-5 and then powered home in the third.
Said Sharapova after the match: “Little by little I started playing a bit better, started getting in the court a little bit more, playing a little bit more aggressive, serving better, returning as well, giving myself more looks at break points.”
And just as Sharapova was turning the screw against Muguruza, Bouchard was mounting a comeback of her own over on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Things looked bleak for the 20-year-old Canadian when she fell behind 7-6, 2-6, 1-4 to clay court specialist Suarez Navarro, but, like Sharapova, she dug in. Suarez Navarro began to crumble when it became clear that Bouchard simply wouldn’t give up. The 18th seed won six of the last seven games to book a spot in her second straight Grand Slam semi-final.
So what can we expect when these two bring their steely demeanours and clean-hitting games to battle? Sharapova and Bouchard have met twice before, with the Russian winning both contests in straight sets. Sharapova has much more experience at tennis’ elite level – this will be her 18th appearance in the last four of a Grand Slam – and she rarely loses to those ranked below her on clay. In the last two years, only Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic have defeated her on the dirt.
But this has been a tournament of upsets. Serena, Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska all fell to younger opponents – can Bouchard continue to fly the flag for the next generation and take down Sharapova? The Montréal native is on a 10-match winning streak and her confidence is clearly sky high. Having broken through at the Australian Open, it would make a great story if she reached the next level in Paris.
To win, Bouchard will have to stay aggressive even when the Sharapova groundstrokes paint the lines. She’ll need to serve effectively, get the first strike in rallies and approach the net where possible. It would also be a good idea to rush Sharapova, who famously slows the pace of her matches in order to ramp up the intimidation factor. For her part, Maria will focus not one jot on what Bouchard is doing. She’ll play the game which, however one-dimensional, has brought her a career Grand Slam and the number one ranking.
With no Serena left in the draw, Sharapova knows she has a prime opportunity to win a fifth major, and it’s hard to see her slipping up here. She might take a while to find her range, but once she does she’ll pummel every ball and run Bouchard ragged. Proving once again that she is one of the most mentally tough players in tennis, Sharapova will take this one in two close, not necessarily pretty, sets.