June 7, 2012

Virgin Territory

We shouldn't be terribly surprised that the women's draw at Roland Garros didn't exactly follow an expected path. Still, the four ladies who battled through the semis earlier today haven't exactly been staples in the latter rounds of the French Open. And with both winners making the final here for the first time in their respective careers, we are guaranteed we're about to see something we haven't in a long, long time.

Maria Sharapova has already secured her return to the #1 ranking with her win today. Sure, she hasn't won a Major since 2008, but she was runner-up at two in the past year and has only fallen before a championship round twice this season. She was deemed the favorite at this tournament almost as soon as Serena Williams was stunningly ousted in the first round, and her chances only got better as top-seeded Victoria Azarenka and each of the last four titleists fell by the wayside. Nevertheless, she'd only made her way to the semis here once last year and, especially after her ugly fourth round against Klara Zakopalova, she still had her work cut out for her.

But today facing Petra Kvitova -- playing her first ever semi at the French -- Sharapova showed no sign of nerves. She'd already avenged her Wimbledon loss in Australia, and threw the monkey off her back with another win in Stuttgart. And though she faced break points early in the match, she stood tough to close out the first set in a tidy forty minutes. There was a little more back-and-forth in the second, but the Russian kept her game ever so slightly cleaner to get the straight-set win and reach her third Major final in twelve months. A win on Saturday would not only cement her place at the top of the rankings, but would also give her that elusive career Grand Slam, making her the first woman to complete the trophy case since Serena Williams did it with the 2003 Australian crown. So the pressure is on, and the motivation is high.

The bigger surprise at this year's final, of course, is the run of super-underdog Sara Errani who, just ten days younger than Sharapova, has never made her way into the spotlight. I picked her as a dark horse at Roland Garros this year, but even I had no idea how well she'd do. The twenty-first seed had won just fifteen Major matches through 2011, two fewer than she'd lost, and she'd never beaten a player ranked in the top ten. That all changed this season, though -- after a Cinderella run to the quarters in Melbourne, she beat two former French champions and brand-new #10 Angelique Kerber to reach her first ever Slam semi.

There she met heavy favorite Sam Stosur, runner-up here in 2010 and a woman who'd won their previous five meetings, most recently a straight set victory in Rome. Errani got down a break early in their match, but rattled off nine straight points to even the score. She kept her cool serving out the first set, but got into a big, insurmountable 0-5 deficit in the second. It looked like momentum had shifted, but the Italian got an early lead in the decider and after another forty minutes successfully served out the match, recording her second top-ten win of the week. She now becomes the first woman to play in both the singles and doubles final of a Slam the French since Kim Clijsters did it in 2003 -- and may be the first to win both since the turn of the century.

Sharapova, of course, hasn't had a great record against first-time Slam finalists recently, and with no history between her and Errani -- surprising considering their similar age and experience -- there's no way to know how they'll match up. The Russian may have the edge on the big stage, but her opponent looks neither intimidated nor exhausted from her now days-on-days of play. But with so much on the line for each competitor, you know Saturday's final is going to be a fight to the finish.

The men contesting their semis tomorrow are a little more accustomed to the pressure of a Slam championship -- they have thirty-one titles between them -- but each has a chance to make his own history. Defending champ Rafael Nadal could surpass Bjorn Borg's record by capturing his seventh Roland Garros crown, top-seeded Novak Djokovic might complete the first Slam cycle since Rod Laver did it in 1969, Roger Federer would be the oldest Major winner also since Laver in '69, and David Ferrer -- the clear dark horse here -- would be the oldest first-time champ since Andres Gomez in 1990. Those milestones will probably be far out of their minds while they go after the wins tomorrow, but that doesn't mean there's any less at stake here.

And as the six remaining contenders for this year's French Open crowns tread into waters few have been before, they should take pride in knowing just how much they're about to accomplish.

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