Maria Sharapova has a rare opportunity to return to the French Open final in 2013. The world No. 2 won her first Grand Slam title on clay in 2012 by defeating Italian Sara Errani in the final.
Sharapova could become the first woman since Justine Henin in 2007 to win back-to-back titles on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros. It would be an impressive achievement for the Russian.
By the same token, Victoria Azarenka has never reached the finals of the French Open. In fact, the world No. 3 had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in seven tries until this year.
Azarenka remains the only player of the final four never to take the court during the women's championship match in Paris.
The winner of the Australian Open, Azarenka would love the opportunity to battle for two Grand Slam titles in a row.
The two women have met 12 times before with Azarenka holding a slight edge over Sharapova.
Who will win this critical match? Check the analysis and predictions to follow.
History would seem to favor Maria Sharapova since she has already won this title. In fact, she won it a year ago on clay—a surface she swore was not conducive to her style of play. After 10 tries, the Russian found a way to adapt her game to the red dirt in Paris.
She has become a consummate clay-court player, defeating Azarenka each time the two have met on clay.
Having won four Grand Slam titles, Sharapova knows how to dig deep and keep her focus in matches. On Wednesday, for example, she lost her opening set 0-6 to Jelena Jankovic, yet she was able to regain her composure and come back to win.
Sharapova has been tested on this surface as well as during pressure-packed Grand Slam tournaments.
Victoria Azarenka, on the other hand, had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals of the French Open until this year. She finally finds herself in the semifinals facing returning champ Sharapova.
The lady from Belarus, however, leads Sharapova 7-5 in their head-to-head.
She is familiar with Sharapova's game and understands what it takes to defeat her.
As a Grand Slam champion in her own right, capturing back-to-back titles in Melbourne at the Australian Open, Azarenka knows how to win on the biggest stages.
History might give the nod to Sharapova, but no one wants to win this title any more than Azarenka—a desire she will demonstrate as the two battle it out on Thursday.
Maria Sharapova began her French Open campaign by defeating her opening round opponent Su-Wei Hsieh in straight sets. Since that early round match, she has remained firmly fixed on winning.
Sharapova never allowed her opponents to gain a firm foothold in any of the subsequent matches, winning most in straight sets.
Her only stumble was on Wednesday, when Jelena Jankovic shot out to take the first set 6-0. She steamrolled over the Russian, who seemed totally lost on court during the first set of their quarterfinal match. But Sharapova regained her composure and rallied, winning the match in three sets.
So far, Sharapova has played 11 sets, winning 10 of them—96 games in all. She's struck 132 winners in five rounds, while piling up 188 points on her serve. In total, she’s amassed 363 points during her march to the semifinals.
Sharapova has won 24 return games in total. Her first serve continues to be a weapon, as she's managed to get 60.8 percent in, winning 74 percent of them during the first five rounds. Additionally, she’s served 10 aces while committing 15 double faults.
Sharapova has won 12 matches in a row on the grounds of Roland Garros and plans to make it 13 by defeating Victoria Azarenka on Thursday. She will do that by relying on her first serve and her powerful groundstrokes.
Victoria Azarenka had something to prove at this year's French Open. Last year, she entered Paris with the No. 1 ranking, but lost her top spot when she exited Roland Garros in the fourth round.
This year, she managed to advance beyond her previous best in the draw—the quarterfinal round.
More than that, however, Azarenka wishes to reclaim her No. 1 ranking. Winning the French Open for the first time would go a long way toward achieving that goal.
Clay has not proven to be her best surface, but Azarenka is making great strides, learning to adapt to the surface. Her movement and her on-court strategy have allowed her to advance to the semifinal on Thursday. There she'll have to get past Maria Sharapova to reach the final.
After defeating Russian Elena Vesnina in straight sets during the opening round, Azarenka has maintained a firm grasp on her temper and stayed focused on the finish line. Self belief has never been one of her shortcomings: Azarenka takes the court with the assumption that she will win the match. So far she has done just that.
The world No. 3 has played 11 sets, winning 10, including one tiebreak. She’s been able to hit 132 winners in five rounds, amassing 363 total points so far. Azarenka has won 31 return games. Her first serves remain reliable, as she successfully placed 73.6 percent in, winning 67.2 percent of them. She's hit six aces to date countered by 20 double faults.
Never one to play it safe, Azarenka takes risks and goes for it on each and every point. So far, that strategy has proven to be very successful.
For Maria Sharapova, a recurrence of her nightmare first set during the quarterfinals must be avoided at all costs. The world No. 2 needs to play with utmost consistency serving and firing her groundstrokes on all cylinders. Both weapons were missing in that opening set on Wednesday.
Sharapova stood almost flat-footed as Jelena Jankovic blew her off the court playing aggressive, deliberate tennis to the tune of 6-0. Eventually Sharapova was able to right the ship and bring her game back into focus, but for a long time she seemed stunned by the attacking style of an opponent who had no intention of backing down.
A similar lapse against a determined Azarenka might not allow Sharapova to come back. The X-factor in the upcoming semifinal on Thursday is Sharapova's ability to serve consistently and pinpoint her groundstrokes without fail. Without her first serve clicking, Sharapova remains vulnerable to defeat.
Victoria Azarenka faces a similar problem if her service game fails her or her groundstrokes go awry. Her susceptibility came into focus during her fourth-round match against Frenchwoman Alize Cornet, as Azarenka dropped the first set before rallying to win the match in three.
Azarenka has not quite mastered the ability to utilize clay courts to her advantage. Even though she must serve well and master her impressive backhand, Azarenka's main goal is still to maintain her patience, developing points slowly and deliberately as the match progresses.
If she allows her temper to flair and tries to rush through a difficult spot in the match, she will pay dearly against Sharapova.
The X-factor for Azarenka is her ability to focus intently on each and every point, keeping a cool head during a potentially difficult match. A win would mean so much to the world No. 3.
So far during the 2013 French Open, Victoria Azarkena has accomplished more than ever before on the grounds at Stade Roland Garros by advancing to the semifinals.
But her desire is not just to do well; Azarenka wants to win—specifically, she wishes to win Grand Slam titles on all surfaces. On Thursday she faces her most sever test by far when she meets the defending champion in semifinal round.
But, Azarenka has defeated Sharapova more than she's lost and that fact should give her some confidence.
Sharapova likes predictability, preferring rallies from the baseline. While volleying is not one of Azarenka's major strengths, the lady from Belarus must find a way to move Sharapova out of her comfort zone. By going for drop shots and keeping the Russian moving—not only side to side, but forward too—Azarenka can turn the tide in her direction.
Keeping up her intense aggression, Azarenka must keep Sharapova off balance, dictating play on her terms. If she does this, she will win this match and advance to her first French Open final.
Maria Sharapova is almost to the finish line. The ultimate prize for the reigning champion is to win it again, setting her new trophy on her mantle next to the one she won a year ago in Paris.
All she must do for an opportunity to take the final step is defeat world No. 3 Victoria Azarenka on Thursday. Even though Sharapova has defeated Azarenka twice on clay, she has not done so in 2013. The last time was in Stuttgart in 2012
Since that time, Azarenka's prowess on clay has improved. Evidently so, as the world No. 3 finds herself in the French Open semifinal for the first time.
Because Azarenka leads in their head-to-head and knows how to win against her, Sharapova will need to establish control of the baseline early. By winning a large percentage of her first serves and being in position to return deep, keeping her opponent pinned to the baseline, Sharapova can accomplish her goal. From that position, Sharapova can dictate play and pace.
Her return game must also remain consistent and effective. If Sharapova can hold her form, serve effectively and dictate play from the back of the court, she will win her semifinal match against Victoria Azarenka.
This is a tough match to predict. Both Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka have weapons enough to win not only their semifinal match, but the 2013 French Open Championship.
Both players have had one tough match—a three-setter they managed to win despite obstacles. They had to evaluate and figure out a way to win on the fly when they faltered in the opening set.
Both have experience winning Slams and in surviving the grueling schedule of a major tournament.
The choice comes down to intangibles.
Sharapova has won here before and has learned her clay-court lessons well. Azarenka is still learning and may not arrive for another year, although she is gaining ground rapidly.
For that reason, Sharapova will win this match on Thursday and advance to her second consecutive French Open final on Saturday.