June 5, 2010

From First to Final

What a difference a year makes!

At the 2009 French Open Sam Stosur met Francesca Schiavone in the first round and rolled through in straight sets on her way to the semis. This year, they met a little bit later -- in the championship match, each playing her first Major final, each looking for her maiden Slam title after more than a decade on Tour.

The two were unlikely finalists in Paris this year. Sam had battled through one of the toughest quarters I'd ever seen, scoring wins over three former and current #1 players, while Francesca emerged from a section that was wide open. After a wearing two weeks both had certainly earned the privilege of playing for this trophy, and they did not disappoint.

Those who don't follow tennis regularly might not be familiar with these two ladies -- between them they'd only captured five singles titles before the French, one each this year. Still, Stosur was the odds-on favorite to win the title. She'd cracked into the top ten in March, beaten players like Jelena Jankovic, Daniela Hantuchova and Vera Zvonareva and made at least the quarters of the last five tournaments she'd played. Add to that the fact that she'd slain a few giants on her way to the championship match, she was looking good.

Thats not to say Schiavone, once ranked as high as #11 in the world, hasn't been impressive. The Italian avenged her 2009 loss to Roberta Vinci in Barcelona and beat third-seeded Caroline Wozniacki in Paris on the way to the finals. She seemed to benefit a bit from her opponent's injuries, though, leaving some -- and admittedly, me -- believing she wouldn't be able to take the power of Stosur on Saturday.

But the twenty-nine year old came to the court with a game plan. Only five-foot-five, she was shockingly strong on her serve, out-acing the Australian six to three. She won fourteen of fifteen net approaches and was able to catch her opponent off-balance more than a few times. While Sam won her first eight service points, it was Schiavone who got the first break at four-all. She held serve again and, before you knew it, the underdog had run off with a one-set lead.

Stosur seemed to regroup in the second, breaking Francesca early and finding herself up 4-1. It looked like she might be able to rally and get to a third, but Schiavone was resilient -- the feisty lady continued her aggressive play, forcing Sam to play her less powerful backhand, and winning three games in a row to get back on serve. She had gotten momentum back on her side and made it to a tiebreak where she really began to shine. She kissed the lines with her returns and kept Stosur so far off the ad-court that Francesca really could put the ball wherever she wanted. She cranked out one powerful shot after another and won five points in a row to claim by far the biggest trophy of her life.

It was a high-quality match from the start, in spite of the relatively short duration and the one-sided scoreline -- exciting rallies, smart hitting, and powerful shot-making. She may not have played the most amazing tennis on her way to the final, but her performance today certainly earned Francesca Schiavone that first Major title of her career.

Sure, I feel bad for Sam, who was so impressive in the last two weeks -- two months, even. But she's a fighter and I don't doubt that she will be playing in more Slam finals in her career. At twenty-six, nearly four years younger than her vanquisher, she's got plenty of time to shine. As for Schiavone, the second oldest first-time champion, this might have been the last legitimate chance she had to win a crown, but given her play and the outpouring of emotion when she ultimately won, I don't think she's going to stop trying for numbers two, three and four. And it will be fun to watch her go.

By the way, in tomorrow's men's final Rafael Nadal will also be looking to avenge the loss Robin Soderling dealt him last year. Here's hoping he takes some inspiration from Francesca's run and is able to also reverse 2009's results!

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