Wimbledon 2011 may be remembered as the shutting of the early grand slam window for some of the younger stars on the WTA tour.
It is entirely possible that world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki, number 4 Vika Azarekna, and the rest of the WTA young guns continue to develop their games and become great champions with multiple majors. But it is also possible that they continue to dilly dally through grand slams, busting out in rounds of 16 or later to various opponents who were better on that day.

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Azarenka (L) and Wozniacki (R) might be discussing which player will win a single grand slam now.

The possibility of the latter is looking a lot greater after Wimbledon 2011 because of what the Woz-arenkas of the world may confuse for the WTA’s Dark Triad: the return of a physical superstar, the health of a lioness in her prime, and the rapid ascent of a huge hitter proving to be the real gem of her age group.

Indeed, it will be the 24 year-old Maria Sharapova who will go for her second Wimbledon title and fourth grand slam overall.  The Siberian-born former number one has publicly stated her intention to return to the top, and Saturday marks her first chance to reestablish herself as a potential favorite at every tournament.
Of course, there was a true “comeback” at Wimbledon, as Serena Williams played her first major in twelve months.  While she lost in the round of 16, I don’t think anyone should come away from this tournament thinking that Serena is anything less than a favorite against any of those in the Wozarenka class.
But perhaps it is Sharapova’s next opponent, Petra Kvitova, who will be the biggest antagonist of the Wozarenkas’ attempt to win major titles in the years to come. The Czech Republic native has progressed to her first major final now, and has shown steady nerves to add to her already overpowering game. It was a lethal combination today for Azarenka, who is used to being the more athletic and powerful player. During her semifinal against Kvitova, you could see Azarenka trying desperately to figure out how to win a different way. It is difficult for the bully to deal with being bullied, and Azerenka simply ran out of time to figure it out in her three-set loss to the bigger Kvitova. One could also point out that to double fault to lose the match is especially indicative of mental weakness, but I’ll grant Vika a pass due to the mental fatigue that she must have endured in getting pushed around the way she usually does to her own opponents.
The trio of Kvitova, 21, Sharapova, 24, and Williams, 29, may dominate the WTA for a while.

While the Williams sisters and their fellow elder statesmen Kim Clijsters, Li Na, and even Francesca Schiavone appear to be title contenders for a while longer, the general consensus was that this young class of players would eventually emerge to dominate the sport for a while. Although Wozniacki has taken a lot of flack for failing to yet win a major, the pressure hasn’t gotten too amped up yet because most people figure that it is a matter of eventuality.
But while Wozniacki, Azarenka and Kvitova are all within a year of each other age-wise, there is no doubt as to which one of them has the greatest potential. Kvitova, who just turned 21, is built like a brick shithouse. While fitness, speed and defense have become all the rage in men’s tennis (for one example, see Andy Roddick in 2007 v. Andy Roddick today), there is still no denying the fact that the women’s game is dominated by the biggest hitters. It’s why Serena has dominated the game for so long, and why Sharapova and Venus have gotten theirs over the years. Sure, the smaller-hitting, athletic defender can win any grand slam tournament, but the room for domination is not there like it is for the powerhouse who can determine when she wins and when she loses. Serena has that power. Maria, despite her seemingly lanky frame, has had that power her whole career, and she’s only growing stronger. And now it has become obvious that Kvitova also has that power. Regardless of what we decide to call these three bashers — the WTA Dark Triad, the Triforce, or any other pop culture reference to the number three — it’s clear that these three players most easily determine who wins and who loses. This extra gear of offense is a tool that Wozniacki and Azarenka lack at this time when it comes to facing either of these three superior offensive players, and it may turn out to cost them as time adds up and the grand slams do not.

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The Belarusian Beauty missed an opportunity today, but in reality it was never up to her.

I am not saying that I think either Wozniacki or Azarenka will go through their careers major-less.  I’m simply saying that if they do, look to Wimbledon 2011 as the beginning of the end of the short era in which the grand slam window was wide open.
Na Li found herself in a second consecutive grand slam final.  Francesca Schiavone found herself in a second consecutive French Open final.  On Saturday, the consistent, deep-hitting player from China made sure that each player received a different fate than the last time around.

Li, the 2011 Australian Open runner-up, was nothing short of trophy-worthy in unseating Schiavone as French Open champion by a score of 6-4, 7-6(0).  Schiavone had trouble finding her top level of consistency, which is a common result for Li’s opponents these days.  Li spent her afternoon stroking the back quarter of the court and keeping the pressure on Schiavone, and the result is a much deserved first career grand slam championship, as well as the #4 world ranking come Monday.

Many are citing the fact that Li is the first Chinese tennis player to ever win a grand slam.  I feel that is important, but too many times we Americans, by default, paint portraits of eastern athletes upon the canvas of their nationality.  Perhaps it is because we need to try to add something to the story, but in Li’s case I would like to see the tennis press really get to know her as a person and player, because she has the personality to be more than just “the first Chinese grand slam champion ever.”  She is one of the best players in a time period where women’s tennis is changing.  Li can be a poster child for not quitting on your dreams of being the best in the world, despite conventional wisdom telling you that if you have not yet ascended to the shortlist by the time you approach your upper twenties, you should probably forget about ever being truly great.

Schiavone did well to get back to the finals, but today Li was too good.  Credit to Na Li for making sure that her very goodness doesn’t go forever unnoticed.  Now it’s time to get ready for Federer v. Nadal.
By now you’ve heard, but Roger Federer scored what is being called “one of the biggest wins of his career” today just before dusk at Roland Garros.  With the crowd firmly behind him, the sixteen-time major champion certainly reacted like it was one of his bigger wins, and anyone can understand why.

All the talk in the past year has been about the decline of Federer’s game, as he had failed to reach a final in the previous four grand slams.  For most players that would be a laughable statistic, but Federer set the bar higher than anyone, and therefore he will continue to be measured against it.

In winning tonight, Federer set up some amazing story lines while simultaneously either killing or delaying some others.  On the positive side, there’s the one about how Federer has publicly stated that he wants to beat #1 Rafael Nadal at the French Open.  Federer is 0-4 lifetime in this tournament against Nadal.  The Swiss master won his only French Open in 2009 after Nadal had been taken out by eventual finalist Robin Soderling.  The title gave Federer his long-awaited career grand slam, but many people regarded it with a pseudo-asterisk, saying that he would not have achieved it had it not been for Nadal’s shocking exit.  Federer has heard all the talk, and to some degree must know there’s some shreds of truth to it, which is why he has made it a stated goal to finally do the only thing left for a player like him to do: to beat his chief nemesis on the rival’s “home” turf.

The other stated goal that Federer is chasing is the quest to regain the world #1 ranking.  Part of me thinks that a player of Federer’s accomplishment would be content with his career and just try to gear up for some grand slam runs, but Federer has said recently that he very much wants to become #1 again.  To do this, Federer would have to play a regular schedule, which means no taking extended time off in between majors.  I have not researched the numbers, so I’m not exactly sure how attainable this goal is for Federer by year’s end, but I do know that a lot of what tennis rankings are based on is how far a player progresses in a given tournament compared to how far that player progressed at the same tournament in the prior year.  With that in mind, Federer did have a disappointing year in 2010, and therefore left the door open for some improvements upon those finishes in 2011.  Federer busted out in the quarterfinals at both the French Open and Wimbledon last year, while losing in the semifinals at the U.S. Open.  The hardcourt season seems miles away right now, and all Federer can do is worry about the next match, but if he can make the finals in both Paris and London (of which he has already achieved the more difficult for him), his tale of two cities can set the stage for a serious jump in the ATP rankings.  Add on the possibility of Nadal failing to defend all of his points here, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, all of which he won in 2010, and Federer’s goal of regaining the world #1 ranking doesn’t seem like quite as much of a pipe dream.

But while Federer’s goals are alive and well, Novak Djokovic had one dream die today and another put on hold.  Nole came into today’s semifinal 41-0 on the season.  It has been well documented that the greatest start in men’s tennis history was John McEnroe’s 42-0 start to the 1984 season.  Not only is that record safe another year, but probably won’t be approached again for quite some time.  The other effect of Djokovic’s loss is that he probably will not be the #1 ranked player on Monday.  A win today would have guaranteed Djokovic his first world #1 ranking, but he had that door pushed closed by the most fitting opponent.  Nole can still be #1 next week, but he will need Federer to defeat Nadal on Sunday for the French Open championship.

We are now set up for the most anticipated French Open final in at least 25 years, and possibly in the entire Open Era (1968 – present).  Nadal will be looking for his sixth French Open title in seven years, while Federer has his shot to put the icing on the cake and do the only thing he has yet to do: beat Nadal at Roland Garros.  The championship match is Sunday at 3 p.m. Paris time, which is 9 a.m. ET in the U.S.  The match is on NBC, about 10 hours after the network will carry Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.  I hope you are able to catch both mammoth events.
The women’s championship at Roland Garros will go to the winner of Saturday’s match between defending champion and #5 seed Francesca Schiavone and #7 seed Na Li.  Both women dispatched their semifinal opponents in straight sets.

Li and Schiavone have split four career meetings, but last year’s French Open was the only time the two have played each other on clay.  Schiavone defeated Li 6-4, 6-2 in the third round en route to her only career grand slam.  While the only Italian woman to win a major has made two French Open finals in a row, China’s highest-ever ranked player has now advanced to the last two grand slam finals, after losing the final of this year’s Australian Open to Kim Clijsters.

There are a lot of similarities between these two players, and that is probably why they are each 2-2 against each other.  Neither Li nor Schiavone are tall players, standing at 5’7″ and 5’5″, respectively.  Both players have a pretty solid offensive game given their lack of height or weight, but both players make their livings by staying in shape and being incredibly consistent.  The same cannot be said for many of the players that have been defeated by the two finalists, such as Sharapova, Azarenka or Kvitova, to name a few.  All three of those top ten seeds fell victim to Na Li, who has had, in my opinion, a tougher road to the final than her defending champion counterpart.  Another comparison between Li and Schiavone is their delayed ascent in the women’s game.  Schia turns 31 years old in a few weeks, while Li is 29.  Both women were pretty much off the radar before 2010 as far as major contention goes.  While 29 and 28 may not seem too old to jump onto the grand slam shortlist for the first time, remember that the two women who get the most grief and have somewhat been written off for never yet winning a major, Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka, are a whopping 20 and 21 years old today.  Perhaps not gaining top 10 rankings at an early age helped to keep the pressure off of Li and Schiavone, who are each the best players in the history of their nations.  The funny thing is, so are Wozniacki and Azarenka.

This is another giant occasion for each player, but the edge has to go to Schiavone based on the fact that she is the defending champion, and that their only clay court matchup was a breeze for her.  But don’t be surprised one bit if this match goes the distance, because Na Li is extremely consistent and is usually only beaten by a power player who is in the zone, which doesn’t really describe Schia, or a player that is simply more consistent than Li is, which might describe Schia.  It should be a great final, and really could go either way.  I’ll take Francesca Schiavone in three sets.
Another day, another betting line favorite ousted on the women’s side of the French Open.  With the top three seeds already gone from the tournament, #4 Victoria Azarenka became the bookies’ favorite to win the championship at Roland Garros.  But her hopes were dashed again by Na Li, the 6th-ranked, 2011 Australian Open finalist from China.  Li ran her record to 4-1 lifetime against Azarenka, while the Belarusian beauty failed to breakthrough to her first career grand slam semifinal.  Azarenka is now 0-4 in the quarterfinal round.  This disappointing yet foreseeable loss comes just one day after Aza and partner Maria Kirilenko busted out in doubles in three sets.  Li defeated Azarenka 7-5, 6-2.

It was one of those days for Victoria Azarenka, who is now 1-4 against Na Li, and 0-4 in grand slam quarterfinals.

The other quarterfinal was another drubbing by the hottest player on tour, #7 Maria Sharapova.  The Russian has stated her intention to regain the world’s #1 ranking, and it certainly wasn’t going to be #15 Andrea Petkovic that derailed Sharapova’s dream.  Ever since Petkovic eliminated Sharapova from this year’s Aussie Open, and followed the win with her patented show-offy dance around the court, the four-time #1 has annihilated the dancing queen.  On the hard courts of Miami this spring, Petkovic was able to grab a 6-3 opening set on Sharapova.  Since then, Maria has allowed Petko to win exactly five games in four sets, including two bagels.  After the win in Miami, Sharapova questioned whether Petkovic was dancing after blowing the one set lead.  It was Maria’s veteran way of saying, “Hey assh*le, don’t ever do that on my court again.”  The Siberian force only furthered her point by crushing Petkovic in the French Open quarters today by a score of 6-0, 6-3.  And if anyone has a right to tell an opponent not to boast, it’s Sharapova.  Maria defeated Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final when the Russian was only 17 years old.  There was no dancing then, and there certainly isn’t any now.  Furthermore, it’s not like Petkovic can play the “youth card,” because while she’s just now becoming a popular player on the tour, the German is less than five months younger than the three-time grand slam champion Sharapova, who has never been accused of rubbing anyone’s nose in their own loss.

Petkovic couldn’t touch Sharapova today… until the post-match handshake of course.  There have been no reports of the red clay subbing as a dance floor.

Sharapova and Li will lead off the semifinal action on Thursday.  Maria is 5-2 against Li, but those two losses have been the most recent matches that the two players have played.  Both were on grass at Birmingham, in 2009 and 2010.  Both were straight sets victories for Li, but remember that Sharapova had not been very good during those years following injuries.  In fact, most people hadn’t counted Sharapova as “back” until she won Rome just a couple weeks ago.

The other semifinal is #11 Marion Bartoli of France against the defending champion, #5 Francesca Schiavone of Italy.  Schia is 4-1 against Bartoli, despite being ranked substantially lower than the Frenchwoman the last four times they have played.  This time, it is Schiavone who is favored to get back to the finals.  Surprisingly, this is only the second career semifinal at a major for either of these women.  Bartoli lost the 2007 Wimbledon final to Venus Williams, while Schiavone of course won the 2010 French Open.

Both semifinals are Thursday.
There are always a lot of assumptions made in tennis tournaments, but two of the most common ones over the last week and a half have been that #4 Victoria Azarenka and #7 Maria Sharapova would meet in the semifinals, and that the winner should win the tournament.  I personally would love to see a match between these two giants of the game that seem like they could be sisters — what with their tall, thin frames, long blonde hair, power games, eastern european descent and tendencies to shriek on court.

But in order to get through Wednesday’s quarterfinals, a lot will have to go right.  For Sharapova, she takes on an opponent in #15 Andrea Petkovic that knocked her out of the 2011 Aussie Open in blowout fashion.  Maria got some revenge in Miami, but only after dropping the first set.  Sharapova seemed to get very annoyed with Petkovic doing her signature dancing around the court, and Maria proceeded to annihilate Petko over the final two sets, dropping only two games.  The two have never met on clay, and Sharapova is 2-1 lifetime against Petkovic, taking 2010’s Masters series tournament in Cincinnati.

While Sharapova has a tough match against an aggressive player, Vika Azarenka has a match against a woman who actually owns her.  Aza and Na Li have only ever played on hard court, but Li is 3-1 against Vika, including the last matchup, which was also at this year’s Australian Open, and was also in straight sets.  And as far as previous major accomplishments go, Li is the one who has made a grand slam final, which she dropped in three sets to Kim Clijsters (2011 Australian Open).  Azarenka, meanwhile, has never made it past the quarterfinal round of any grand slam tournament.  So while everyone keeps repeating that Vika Azarenka is the player to beat at this tournament, history would actually argue otherwise.  While I do like Na Li, and she was 1/2 of my biggest tennis parlay hit of my life, I hope that Azarenka can play her game and hopefully that clay somehow benefits her in the results column.  We hockey fans gotta stick together.

The top half of the women’s semis have already been set.  #11 Marion Bartoli of France will take on defending champion and #5 seed Francesca Schiavone for the right to go to the finals.

*** One quick note, because it was not worth an entire blog post. ***

The Atlanta Thrashers are now officially moving to Winnipeg, and tomorrow I will give my thoughts on why I think there were some shady means to the correct end.  I’m glad for Winnipeg and Canada in general, but this whole thing could have been done a little more honestly, in my opinion.  That comes tomorrow, and then will not be addressed again, because it will be time for the Stanley Cup Finals.

Roger Federer defeated the last French player in the field Tuesday, scoring a 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (3) straight-setter over Gael Monfils, who I’m hearing will move all the way to #6 in the world next week.  The unsurprising win sets the stage for a rather large semifinal match with #2 Novak Djokovic, who was the beneficiary of a walkover by Fabio Fognini a day before his quarterfinal match with the Djoker was to be held.

This match itself is for the right to go to the finals at Roland Garros and play for a grand slam championship, but it means more than that to each player.  For Federer, this match represents an opportunity to silence his critics by beating the unbeatable man, and getting a shot at a second career slam, and this time perhaps without the “didn’t have to beat Nadal” asterisk.  It is also an opportunity to delay Djokovic’s ascent to the #1 ranking, which probably does not mean much to Federer personally, but surely Roger feels a little bit annoyed at the reports of his athletic demise.

As for Djokovic, a win against Federer would assure him the world #1 ranking next week, a subjective achievement that he has yet to attain.  Additionally, a win in the semis would run his record in 2011 to 42-0, which would tie John McEnroe’s all-time record for best start to a season.  Needless to say, the record could then be Djokovic’s by weekend’s end, but it would have to be accompanied by a more important accomplishment:  the French Open title.  If Djokovic is able to win this tournament, he would be the #1 ranked player, have the record for best start to a season at 43-0 and counting, grab a third career major, and be halfway to a 2011 calendar grand slam.  Those are all pretty high stakes, and it will be interesting to see if Nole shows any signs of being weighed down by the meaning of it all.  I doubt that he will, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be beaten by Federer.

The top half of the draw still has to be filled out, and most people expect Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray to complete the dream semifinals that fans have wanted for many consecutive slam events.  But here are four reasons why it might not happen.

1.  Robin Soderling, Nadal’s opponent on Wednesday, has had success here before.  The #5 ranked player from Sweden has been the runner-up at Roland Garros the past two years.
2.  Soderling is in the zone, while Nadal’s form has come under question.
3.  Soderling is the only man who has ever beaten Nadal here at the French Open.
4.  Andy Murray doesn’t exactly always take advantage of wide open draws.

Both matches tomorrow should be interesting, but I don’t think Murray v. Juan Ignacio Chela can hold a candle to Nadal v. Soderling as far as intrigue goes.  It will be up to Murray as to whether or not he wants to get involved in a tough match, which he too often does.  I would think Murray should be good to win here, and probably in three sets.  If it goes five, watch out.  As far as Nadal’s form goes, I think reports of it being down are greatly exaggerated.  Look at his results.  Three of his four wins have been in straight sets, and the one match that he had to go five in was the result of Nadal dropping two tie breakers.  Soderling has also not dropped any “legitimate” sets; he dropped a tie breaker to American journeyman Ryan Harrison in the first round.  I would love to see Soderling challenge and even get out to a lead in this match, but I don’t think anyone would make him a favorite.  Gotta assume Nadal in four.