PARIS // Samantha Stosur versus Francesca Schiavone sounds a little like a first-round pairing, and a year ago at the French Open, it was. Stosur won that matchup between two players who had never made a splash in a grand slam tournament. Today, they will meet again, this time in an improbable final. It is hard to say whose run to the last round has been more surprising. Stosur has beaten Justine Henin the former world No 1 and a four-time winner at Roland Garros, Serena Williams, the current No 1 and winner of 12 grand slam titles, and Jelena Jankovic, another former No 1, in her past three matches.
Schiavone eliminated four consecutive seeded players, including two in the top five. In both their home countries, their success is big news. Schiavone, 29, is the first Italian woman to reach a grand slam final. Stosur, 26, is first Australian woman to do so in 30 years. It is causing a lot more buzz than when they met in the first round. "I don't actually remember that much about that match," Stosur said.
When Schiavone was asked if she could have imagined her current success back then, she replied: "A year ago? No. I had to change a lot of things ... I had big problems. So I had to turn this problem into hurdles to overcome." In her 39th career grand slam, Schiavone has cleared every hurdle so far. She had never previously advanced beyond the quarter-finals in a major event. Between the two finalists, Schiavone has provided the better photo opportunities, thanks to her new celebratory ritual of kissing the clay. But Stosur has made the bigger headlines, outlasting Henin, in three sets and overcoming a match point to beat Williams, the 2002 French Open champion.
Against Jankovic, Stosur dominated from the start on Thursday and swept the final six games to win, 6-1, 6-2. "I probably couldn't have asked to play a much better match in the semi-finals," Stosur said. "So to do that and now be in my first final is just incredible." Schiavone's semi-final was slightly longer but ended abruptly. She took a seat for the changeover after winning the first set 7-6 against Elena Dementieva, then looked up to see the Russian approaching.
"When I saw her, I thought, 'Do you need something?'" Schiavone said. Dementieva extended her hand as a concession, and retired citing a left calf injury. With that, Schiavone was into the final. She fell to her knees, kissed the court and rose with clay on her smiling face. When Stosur completed her victory 90 minutes later, she waved to the crowd and belted a ball into the stands but otherwise behaved as though she won grand slam semifinals all the time.
That is not the case. She made her first major semi-final at Roland Garros a year ago and has since continued to climb in the rankings. She will rise to a career-best No 6 next week. After starting her career 39-37 on clay, Stosur is 28-8 since 2008. This year she is 20-2 on the surface, best on the women's tour. The Australian plays a power game. Her serve can top 190 kph, and as an alternative she hits a high-bouncing kick serve - a rarity on the women's tour. That sets up her aggressive forehand that has heavy topspin.
"She's a strong girl," Jankovic said. "To be honest, she kind of has like almost the game of a man. That's what it feels like. She has a very good kick, which not many women have. It's a very heavy spin." Schiavone doesn't fit the mould of today's touring professionals, either. She relies on her speed to counterpunch, mixing the pace and using lots of spin to keep opponents off balance. She came to Paris with a career record of 7-40 against top-five players. This week she's 2-0, with wins over Dementieva and Caroline Wozniacki, the No 3 seed.
Schiavone is 15-3 on clay this year, including her third career title at Barcelona in April. On Monday, two weeks shy of her 30th birthday, she will crack the top 10 in the rankings for the first time, the oldest woman to do so in 12 years. "It's a thrill," Schiavone said. "For now, all I can tell you is I'm happy." * AP