Surprise! Schiavone, Stosur in French Open final |

Surprise! Schiavone, Stosur in French Open final

Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press

PARIS – On a rainy, windy day 53 1/2 weeks ago, at Roland Garros’ cozy, 259-seat Court 8, Samantha Stosur and Francesca Schiavone played each other in a run-of-the-mill, first-round match at the French Open.

Stosur, then ranked 32nd, beat Schiavone, then ranked 50th, in straight sets. They’ll meet again at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament Saturday. Oh, how the setting and circumstances have changed.

This time around, Stosur vs. Schiavone will be for the French Open championship, in the 14,845-capacity main stadium, broadcast live on TV around the world. In line with the topsy-turvy way this tournament unfolded, it will be the first Grand Slam final for each woman – only the fifth such double-debut in the 42-year Open era.

“No matter what I’m feeling, she’s probably thinking it, too, so it’s a different, new situation for both of us. Who knows how we’re both going to feel? I’m sure there’s going to be some nerves out there,” Stosur said. “I mean, she hasn’t gone through it before, either, so that’s probably a little bit comforting.”

The No. 7-seeded Stosur is the first woman from Australia to play for a major tennis title since Wendy Turnbull was the runner-up at the 1980 Australian Open. That’s nothing compared to the wait endured by the No. 17-seeded Schiavone’s nation: She’s the first woman from Italy to reach a Grand Slam final in the sport’s century-plus history.

“It’s beautiful,” Schiavone said in Italian. “Very beautiful. Moving.”

Neither finalist spent much time on court in Thursday’s anticlimactic semifinals.

Indeed, Schiavone was sitting on her green changeover bench, toweling off after winning the first set of her match 7-6 (3) in 69 minutes, when her opponent, No. 5 Elena Dementieva, walked up while fighting tears to say she was quitting.

Dementieva explained later that, unbeknownst to everybody else, she tore her left calf muscle during her second-round match.

“It’s very painful to even walk,” said Dementieva, who isn’t sure whether she’ll be at Wimbledon. “Just couldn’t continue to play.”

In the day’s second semifinal, Stosur produced her third consecutive victory over a player who’s been ranked No. 1, completely overpowering a bewildered Jelena Jankovic 6-1, 6-2 to add to upsets of 12-time major title winner Serena Williams in the quarterfinals and four-time French Open champion Justine Henin in the fourth round.

“Beating the caliber of players I’ve played the last three rounds definitely helps me for Saturday’s match,” said Stosur, a tour-leading 20-2 on clay this season and a 2009 semifinalist at Roland Garros. “I’ve beaten all those, so why can’t I win one more?”

Using exactly the same formula that worked against Williams and Henin, Stosur served brilliantly and pounded forehand winners from all angles. She hit seven aces, reaching 120 mph, and seven forehand winners – numbers one assumes would have been more impressive if the match had lasted more than a mere hour.

Afterward, the No. 4-seeded Jankovic alternated between self-admonishment and praise for Stosur.

“I wasn’t like myself,” said Jankovic, the 2008 U.S. Open runner-up. “I don’t even know who that was on the court.”

Assessing her opponent’s skills, Jankovic mentioned Stosur’s kick serve – a high-bouncing offering rare in the women’s game, the Australian learned it when she was about 13 – and her penchant for hitting “run-around” forehands, where she slides over to take whacks at balls headed for her backhand side.

“To be honest,” Jankovic said, summing up, “she kind of has, like, almost the game of a man. That’s what it feels like.”

She made note of Stosur’s muscular build, saying, “She’s a strong girl. You can see by looking at her physically. She can hit pretty big, and she has one of the strongest serves in the women’s game.”

Said Stosur’s coach, Australia Fed Cup captain David Taylor: “She’s a natural athlete. Everyone thinks she spends 10 hours a day in the gym, and a lot of that’s just good genetics.”

Both Stosur and Schiavone attribute a newfound sense of self-confidence with allowing them to make it this far for the first time.

“Once you have that belief, that helps everything, doesn’t it? The limitations in women’s tennis are up here,” Taylor said, pointing to his right temple. “So once you believe, everything is great.”

The 26-year-old Stosur only once had been beyond the third round in singles at a Grand Slam tournament before last year’s French Open run, although she’s won two major titles in women’s doubles and two in mixed doubles. Her singles game has improved dramatically since she returned to the tour in April 2008 after about nine months away while recovering from Lyme disease, a tick-born illness that can affect a person’s joints and nervous system. She was ranked 149th two years ago.

“I’d never wish to go through any of that ever again, but in hindsight, who knows what it actually did for me? Since then, I’ve had the best time of my career, best results, and I’m playing the best,” Stosur said. “So maybe looking back, taking all that time out was a good thing.”

Schiavone, who turns 30 on June 23, reached the quarterfinals on her very first trip to the French Open, in 2001, and then never again made it that far in Paris until now. But she had only one first-round loss at Roland Garros in that span – yes, that’s right, a 6-4, 6-2 setback against Stosur on May 26, 2009, out on Court 8.

Why did it take Schiavone – it’s pronounced skee-ah-VOH-nay – until now to reach a Grand Slam final, in her 39th try?

And why did it take her until now to make it into the top 10 in the WTA rankings, something she’ll do Monday? Schiavone is the oldest player since 1998 to make her debut in the top 10.

“Why late? I think everybody (is) different. … It’s my time now,” she said. “Maybe before I wasn’t ready.”

Italy’s Fed Cup and Davis Cup captain, Corrado Barazzutti, agreed, saying that Schiavone used to fight with herself too much during matches.

Now, Barazzutti said, “She plays calmly. … When she plays well, and she’s consistent, she can beat anyone.”

After taking a moment to absorb the shock of Dementieva’s concession, Schiavone repeated the victory celebration she used after knocking off No. 3 Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, getting down on her knees to plant a kiss on the court, leaving a smudge of rust-colored clay on her chin.

So how did the dirt taste?

“It was good,” she said. “So good.”

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