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 anticlimactic semifinals.
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, “she kind of has, like, almost the game of a man. That’s what it feels like.
“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.”