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Ladies First

Maria Sharapova, on her way to her first Roland-Garros trophy, plays like a Tsarina.

By 6.8.12

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PARIS -- There were questionable calls, but that is the way the breaks go in tennis and in the end it is not refereeing that makes a difference. Gottfried von Cramm, the great German champion, told his friend Don Budge, the best American player of the 1930s, that he should not call his own shot out, if the ump called it in (Budge was a good sport and did not want unearned points.) His argument had to do with respect for authority, a very German attitude.

Budge got the idea, stopped arguing with line referees and umps and Von Cramm -- who was married to a Jewess though he was, in fact, a bit ambiguous in s*x matters --eventually rebelled against the authority of the German state, to the extent it was represented by Nazis. He plotted against them. This was, of course -- he was of an old and noble family -- after doing his duty in the death plains of the eastern front against the Slavs, returning home severely wounded, yet requesting further combat duty. He somehow survived that and the purge of aristocrats that followed the attempt on Hitler's life, survived the war.

Knowing when not to protest authority is a sign of good upbringing.

Nonetheless, I do not think Petra Kvitova was wrong to question some of the calls during her semi-final match against Maria Sharapova at the French Open, formally the Internationaux de France. The shots were very close and in a baseball game, you may be sure, someone would have yelled kill the umpire or offered to lend him a pair of glasses. Petra, a very pretty and fantastically agile and lean and tall Moravian girl of only 22, who lost to Sharapova at the Australian Open as well as at Stuttgart this year, had her eye on the ball and she saw where the damn thing went, for Heaven's sake. As a Czech, she was not about to start a revolution or some such against the powers of this world. That is not the Czech way, notwithstanding the Prague Spring, which frankly was on a level different from the Cairo one or even the Tunis one that, so far, is the only one among those much heralded springs in non-tennis playing countries that seems to have led to some sort of summer.

The point is that Maria, who takes over the No. 1 WTA ranking from the floundering Viktoria Azarenka, who basically bombed out here, played a better match, and no matter the calls, she was from the start on course to win.

For one thing, her serve was on. Maria's serve has been an "issue" during most of her career, but in her remarkable run of the past two weeks, it has been on target and effective, and it was fitting that she hit an ace on the last point against Petra. She was, from the service onward, or from the return of serve onward, in control of the point. She set the rhythm, fast-and-deep or game-of-chicken, volley or baseline, crosscourt or down-the-line. She hits errors, but more often she puts the shots where she wants them and is not afraid to risk close ones: she is determined, even ruthless, not the kind of player who lets the other player beat herself.

       Petra was good; in many regards, you could argue she played better than she did in her quarter-final against the Russian Kazakh, or at least I think she is a Russian Kazakh, Yaroslava Shvedova, a wonderfully good natured, fresh faced girl, young lady I mean, with colorful glasses (like the wonderfully good natured, fresh faced Serb boy, young man I mean, Janko Tipsarevic, who fell before the mighty Nicolas Almagro after a great run that helped dash American hopes when he met the promising but deflating Sam Querrey last week. No, sir, I never thought Yaroslava had a chance against Petra, but Petra it has to be said played a funny match, mixing the horrible and the sublime but so clearly outclassing the pretty Kazakh (who I think is really Russian, but who are we to say -- we, a nation of melted immigrants?) that it scarcely mattered.

Against Maria, it did. Boy, did it. Maria -- and mind, she was not quite as good as Natalie Wood in the role by that name, but who ever has been? -- was on point, on target, on her game. Maria Sharapova wanted to be number one Thursday night, preparatory to winning the Mousequetaire trophy (ladies' division) on Saturday, and nothing was going to stop her. It is the one trophy she has not won in her young but illustrious career. She is the kind of woman who gets what she wants. She is the diva of this tournament, the ice queen and the tsarina, a Russian-American girl or an American Russian girl, you figure it out, but nothing, in either hyphenation, is going to stop her. She goes up against a little piece of Italian charm on the weekend, Sara the Sam killer, and you can guess what will happen.

Observe that Sam -- Samantha Stosur, the fair and fresh faced beauty from Australia who won the last U.S. Open -- by all rights was scheduled to meet Maria Sharapova, the Florida princess from Nyagan, tall and graceful and lean and yet ice-cold and hard as steel with the ability to unleash her passions like some sort of -- what else can one say? -- Tolstoyan heroine (in Tolstoy, the women are filled with passion, in Dostoevsky, the men), and when that happens, what can a little Czech girl do but fight, fall, and promise to fight another day.

Nyagan: that is Siberia. No wonder she likes Florida. But keep this in mind, you can take the girl out of Siberia but, yes, you know the rest. Petra is Moravian, she understands the Slavic -- and perhaps even the Siberian, though perhaps not the Floridian -- mind, and it seemed, from some distance away in the bleachers, that she knew what was coming. She fought hard. Petra Kvitova, nearly the same height as Maria at over six feet, a little heavier though she looks just as slim with those long legs, perhaps a bit rounder, babyfattish as we used to say, around the hips, long legs long arms long blonde hair, Petra is a girl of Central Europe where Maria has that fierce from-the-steppes look, albeit tempered by Florida's shopping malls. Maria will have won three times as much money, at least, for playing tennis this year alone as Petra, by the time this tournament is over. Good for her. Three million clams, and every penny earned the hard ruthless way of the steppes.

Maria is so dominant this year she does not even seem to work at winning, though of course that is the surest sign she works harder than anyone else. Sara Errani has been working very hard too, and earning more than the favorite, Samantha Stosur, whom she beat in three sets. When Sam settled down and played, she was invincible, crushing Sara 6-1 in the second with reliable, calm and strong place shots anywhere she wanted them, notably right next to the baseline. For a reason no one can explain, she could not keep this up and went wild in the third -- to be sure, Sara was playing well and taking every opportunity to hit hard -- and everything seemed to be going out of bounds.

Comparing the two semi-finals, one cannot seriously doubt the outcome of the next ladies' match, but in tennis doubts are always in order. The mighty Bryan brothers, Mike and Bob, advanced to their own final in the men's doubles, the only Americans still standing outside the juniors, where one of our young hopes, Mitchell Krueger, is still in contention, but even there, the doubts surfaced when the Dutch-Pak team of Jean-Julien Rojer and Aisam ul-Haq Qureshi held their service games to the end of their second losing set, forcing one of the best men's doubles team in the history of doubles to resort to a tiebreak. And they must face the formidable combo of Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor before they can go home.

However, the ladies were the stars on Thursday, and perhaps for this reason they were featured at Chatrier's center court rather than the smaller, better for close observers of the game, court at Suzanne-Lenglen stadium, named of course for the French legend of the 1920s and '30s. In the spirit of things, the hosts (the French Tennis Federation) had some more recent legends on hand, Martina Navratilova among others, and provided booths for guests to do their nails, if I understood correctly, and other things women do. This is a classy city, where women do those things. And they play great tennis. 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.