A few years ago, the University of Memphis was the No. 1 college basketball team in the country with one fatal flaw: free-throw shooting. All season long, pundits cautioned that the Tigers had the talent to win the NCAA championship but would eventually be felled by their atrocious shooting from the charity stripe.
When the NCAA tournament began, Memphis won in spite of their poor percentages at the line and made it all the way to the finals. Up late on Kansas, all Memphis had to do was hit a few free throws to seal the game. The team missed four of its last five, including one by current NBA MVP Derrick Rose. Kansas came down the court, hit a game-tying 3-pointer with nine seconds left and eventually won in overtime.
Memphis had almost endured its Achilles' heel. In the end, it tripped them up, as expected.
The same thing happened to Maria Sharapova in the semifinals of the French Open. If the Russian superstar was going to�win the French and cap the career Slam, she'd have to survive her inconsistent serve, which has been plaguing her for years. Could Masha make it through seven matches without having a bad day?
When she struggled with 17-year-old Caroline Garcia in the second round, it was thought that maybe Sharapova had gotten the yips out of her system for the tournament. All of a sudden she's in the semifinals and all she needed to do was hold it together for two matches, not seven. She could do it.
Turns out she couldn't. Sharapova double faulted 10 times in the match, including on match point. Twice before she handed Li Na a break with doubles. The windy conditions didn't help, particularly on Sharapova's high ball toss. Once that first double fault happened, it led to the second and then the third and snowballed from there. She was living in fear of the collapse of her�serve and when it happened she couldn't do anything to prevent it.
Watching the match on TV, I thought Sharapova was going to double fault each time she stood on the baseline. That's irrelevant, of course. What does matter is that Sharapova almost certainly believed the same thing.
Christopher Clarey of the New York Times wrote that he's "only watched a couple matches in my life where I was absolutely sure someone would double fault on match point. This was one."
The serve doesn't tell the whole story, of course. Kansas beat Memphis that night because the Jayhawks were a great team that hit clutch shots, played aggressive defense and put Memphis away when they had the opportunity. Li Na did the same on Thursday afternoon.
Roland Garros never suited Maria Sharapova all that well anyway. If she's to win her fourth Grand Slam, Wimbledon was always a much better bet, especially with the Williams sisters still questionable for the grass-court event. The quick courts suit Sharapova's aggressive style better than the plodding pace of the surface in Paris.
Of course, the speed of the court doesn't matter at all if you can't get in a serve.