Commentary

Don't count out Cibulkova or Stosur

Updated: June 4, 2009, 2:39 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

PARIS -- The French Open is justifiably known as a venue where underdogs often come out as alpha dogs. Thursday's women's semifinals will offer that opportunity to two players who have never been this far in a Grand Slam event -- in fact, neither Australia's Samantha Stosur nor Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova has ever won a WTA singles title. Can they break up an all-Russian final between two top-10 players?

Dinara Safina, Russia (1) vs. Dominika Cibulkova, Slovakia (20)

Since 1997, the top seed in the women's draw has won here only once, but Safina shows every sign of being able to buck that trend. She is 20-1 since ascending to the No. 1 ranking on April 20 and is riding a 15-match win streak, all on clay. After four effortless wins, Safina bounced back from a first-set lapse against Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals and, more tellingly, was the less histrionic player on court.

"I mean, it was enough, my fight, but I hope from the next match that I will play completely different and I'll start to dominate from the first point," Safina said.

Cibulkova would be at a major disadvantage if she and Safina were going up for a jump ball. At a compact 5-foot-3 (to Safina's 5-11), she's one of the smallest women on the tour, but her scrambling ability -- not surprisingly, patterned after that of another player she admires, Kim Clijsters -- helps make up for the size mismatch. And Cibulkova, who two years ago was playing here as a qualifier ranked No. 131, clearly isn't afraid of big situations. She mercilessly dismantled a tired Maria Sharapova in the quarters, lapsing only when she was on the verge of feeding the superstar a double bagel.

The lopsided nature of the match should have been "more surprising for the people who don't know me," Cibulkova contended, and added that she was angered at first when she heard the crowd supporting Sharapova, then put it out of her mind.

That mental discipline will serve her well. But Safina, now guaranteed to retain her No. 1 slot after Serena Williams' exit, has had the upper hand in their two previous matches (both on hard court) and is competing with authority. "Too much power," Martina Navratilova said.

"It's hers for the taking," Navratilova added when asked about Safina's chances of capturing her first Grand Slam title, especially after Williams' ouster. "Safina should be sending Sveta [Kuznetsova] flowers," the legend said.

Predictions:

Bonnie D. Ford: Safina in straight sets, though it won't be a rout.

Greg Garber: Safina in straight sets. Wants to prove she's No. 1

Svetlana Kuznetsova, Russia (7) vs. Samantha Stosur, Australia (30)

Kuznetsova's quarterfinal defeat of Williams was epochal for the Russian, whose tendency to wilt in the clutch has cost her dearly over the years: She's 10-18 in tournament finals lifetime, 0-for-5 last year alone. But we expect the 2004 U.S. Open winner (and 2006 Roland Garros finalist) to play a more inspired match Thursday than she did last year in a never-in-doubt semifinal loss to Safina.

Stosur, whose previous best Slam showing was a fourth-round appearance at the Australian Open, is making a dream run here a year and a half after coming back from debilitating bouts with viral meningitis and lyme disease that caused her to miss nearly an entire season beginning in mid-2007. "You know, last year I was still really careful about what it was doing and wasn't sure how much to do and not to do and all that kind of thing," she said Wednesday. "Now, this year, it's just fantastic."

Before that forced hiatus, Stosur and then-partner Lisa Raymond were the No. 1 doubles team in the world -- in fact, they won a French Open championship in 2006 -- and she was one of few players attempting to juggle both disciplines at the highest level. Although Stosur is still playing doubles regularly with fellow Aussie Rennae Stubbs, her priorities have shifted, and it shows.

[+] EnlargeSamantha Stosur
Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty ImagesSamantha Stosur has proven to be more than a doubles specialist at this year's French Open.

Clay often favors defensive-minded players, which makes this battle between two players with great offensive strengths somewhat hard to read. Kuznetsova won their only previous meeting, on hard court five years ago, a meaningless result now. Stosur has a potent kick serve, while Kuznetsova's forehand, when it's working, is one of the most formidable in the game.

The key will be whether Kuznetsova can recover from the Williams match -- not only the 2 hours, 47 minutes on court, but also the emotional high of escaping from her own personal Groundhog Day scenario. "This was huge for her, not only for this tournament, but for the rest of her career," Navratilova said. "It could have been a career-breaker if she had chances and faltered again, the same way. She stayed with it."

Stosur, the first Australian woman to reach a Roland Garros semifinal in 21 years, can swing freely without dwelling on her reputation -- win or lose, she'll crack the WTA's top 20 for the first time.

"I think today was a bigger test for her emotionally," Stubbs said of Stosur. "It was a massive opportunity for her, going against a younger opponent with half the experience. My mantra to her was, you have to refuse to lose matches like that. She's understanding that and closing them out now, and knows she deserves to beat players in the top 10."

Predictions:

Bonnie D. Ford: Stosur in three. She'll be mentally and physically fresher.

Greg Garber: Kuznetsova in straight sets. She's feeling the fire.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

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Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.