Baseline Buzz: Sharapova or Halep?

June 6, 2014, 11:52 PM

— -- PARIS -- California Chrome may want to watch closely as Maria Sharapova guns for another French Open title.

If you're keeping track, the Russian has now dropped the first set in her past three matches -- only to come back and win. So for the thoroughbred, who is seeking to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1979, mimicking Sharapova's slow start might be a smart strategy in the grueling 1½-mile test at the Belmont Stakes, the last leg in the Triple Crown series.

In horse racing and tennis, although laboring early is not recommended, there is time to recover. Just ask Sharapova.

"Well, I would love to win those matches in two sets, but I always feel like I put in the work to be ready to play whatever it takes," she said after the semifinals. "If it takes three hours to win the match in three sets, I will be ready for that.

Sharapova will need that resolve come Saturday when she faces Simona Halep for the title. Until the semifinals, Halep hadn't dropped more than four games in any set through her first five matches, an astonishing feat considering she had not sniffed anything close to a major final in her five years on tour. As it stands, Halep is still a perfect 12-for-12 in sets.

There are a number of ways to look at this final. Halep will be the fresher player and has been playing near the top of her game for two weeks. But Sharapova has the winning pedigree and experience under the spotlight. She won this event two years ago and collectively has four Slam championships. So there is the anxiety factor to consider.

"Yes, I felt more nervous today," Halep said after beating Andrea Petkovic in the semis. "I felt a little bit like in Australian Open before quarterfinals. Before the match was better for me. I stayed relaxed with my team. But when I stepped on court, it was very difficult to manage the emotions.

Unfortunately, we can't forget, which brings us to another spirited edition of the Baseline Buzz. How will the final women's match of this fortnight play out? tennis editor Matt Wilansky and espnW's Jim Caple share their thoughts.

Wilansky: It's counterintuitive on so many levels, Jim. Sharapova doesn't have the makeup of a clay-court player, and even she would tell you it's not her ideal playing surface. James Blake was in-house a few days ago and I asked him how Sharapova has been able to sustain her stellar form on dirt. Without hesitation, he said that clay exposes Sharapova's movement and that her game is better suited anywhere but in Paris. But Blake credited Sharapova's unrelenting tenacity as the main reason for her success. Yet here she is, one match away from winning her second title at Roland Garros. So you could argue clay is her best surface.

Caple: It is, Mr. Wilansky. Sharapova says clay was tough for her when she was starting out because she lacked the mental confidence when playing on it. "It took me years to build that confidence in my body and my legs getting stronger and recovering on the court to make it a surface that I actually loved playing on,'' she said earlier this tournament. She definitely has that confidence now. Not only has she reached the final here the past three years, she has won 93 percent of her matches on clay since 2012.

Wilansky: Which, amazingly, puts her right up there in Rafa territory. Since 2005, Rafael Nadal has produced a mind-blowing 293-14 record on clay -- a 95 percent winning rate. That is, in slang parlance anyway, stupid. Whoever thought we'd be comparing Sharapova to Nadal on a clay court? Still, heading into this final, I am a little concerned about Sharapova, even though she continues to win. There are two ways to look at the fact that she's gone the distance in the past three straight matches. Either she's not quite at the top of her game or she's as determined to win as anyone in the game.

Caple: I think it's both. She has won 19 three-set matches on clay and is 19-3 in three-setters at Roland Garros. But the reason she has needed the three sets this week is that she has played poorly in the first set. Even while winning the second set against Eugenie Bouchard, she had six double faults. What has helped her win out in the end has been her opponents getting a little nervous, a little tentative. Bouchard started out very aggressive but became just a smidge defensive after that. You can't do that against Shazza. When you get her down, you can't let up. You have to go for the jugular. It will be interesting to see whether Halep can do so. She took the first set from Sharapova in their last match in Madrid but dropped the next two. And playing a Slam final is a new experience as well.

Wilansky: All good points, Jim. Nerves are the one intangible we can't account for until the final begins. But if you look at her form, Halep is the first player since Martina Hingis some 17 years ago to reach her first Grand Slam final (Aussie) without losing a set, according to the WTA. And what did Hingis do? She won the final in straight sets, crushing Mary Pierce -- a Frenchwoman. The best thing that can happen to Halep is for Sharapova to continue her shoddy first-set play Saturday. Because the last thing the Romanian wants is to fall behind early against a player who seems as hungry as she's ever been to win.

Caple: Speaking of which, Mary Carillo calls Halep's game "Hingis-like.'' As you say, nerves are a key issue, and we'll see how she fares. But Halep says her improvement in Slams -- she was out in the second round or earlier in her 10 majors prior to last year's US Open -- is due to her gaining more confidence and feeling more relaxed. As for the final here, she says: "I have nothing to lose. I will keep this in my mind always. I will try to hit very relaxed. Of course, I know that it will be very tough to manage the emotions, but I will try my best at that moment.'' Actually, she does have something to lose. The championship.

Wilansky: OK, let's get to it: You and I have both watched Halep and Sharapova for nearly two weeks now. I have a ton of respect for the way Sharapova goes about her business, but I'm going on record as saying Halep will win the title come Saturday. First (shameless plug), I picked her before the tournament began, and a win will give me some serious bragging points the next time I run into our analysts. But more importantly, Halep has the look of someone who is ready to start winning majors, not just here in Paris, but at other venues as well. Her movement is reminiscent of Hingis, as Carillo said, but Halep has also made a concerted effort to stay close to the baseline, take balls on the rise and end points when she needs to. Mr. Caple, I say Halep in two.

Caple: And I agree with you. Both will need to be at the top of their games. Sharapova has been spotty here, while Halep has been spot on the entire tournament. Sure, Sharapova has the experience -- this is her ninth final in a major and she'll be going for her 50th win at Roland Garros -- and the name recognition, but Halep is the better player now. There is a reason she is going to be ranked third in the world after this, and she will show it Saturday.

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