First forays to French Open final
PARIS -- Recently, the French Open has become famous -- or is that infamous? -- for delivering first-time, one-time Grand Slam singles champions.
Since the millennium, no fewer than five players have broken through here at Roland Garros: Albert Costa (2002), Juan Carlos Ferrero (2003), Gaston Gaudio (2004), Anastasia Myskina (2004) and Ana Ivanovic (2008). And not one of them has won another major title.
On Saturday, either Italian Francesca Schiavone or Australian Samantha Stosur will join that quirky, one-of-a-kind list. No Italian woman has won a Grand Slam singles title; the last Aussie woman to do it was Evonne Goolagong, 30 years ago at Wimbledon.
Although Stosur produced a thumping with a reasonably conventional 6-1, 6-2 victory over Jelena Jankovic on Thursday, the first semifinal ended somewhere way past strange in a through-the-looking-glass sort of way.
After Elena Dementieva lost a first-set tiebreaker, she walked over to Schiavone's changeover chair and told her she was retiring from the most important match of Schiavone's life. As Dementieva turned to the chair umpire, the look on the spirited Italian's face was one of utter amazement.
There was no flurry of fist pumps, no kissing of the red clay, no tears of joy. Just silence as she processed the sequence of events and arrived at the inescapable conclusion: Three weeks from her 30th birthday, she had advanced to a major final for the first time in her career.
It was, however, not a first for women's tennis.
Dementieva's abrupt departure, due to a torn left calf muscle, she said, called to mind the 2006 Australian Open, which was marred by two consecutive midmatch walk-offs. Kim Clijsters retired trailing 2-3 in the third set of her semifinal match with Amelie Mauresmo, and then Justine Henin stopped playing down a set and 0-2, robbing Mauresmo of that moment of celebration.
Mary Joe Fernandez, the U.S. Fed Cup captain who worked the broadcast for ESPN, said she could see Dementieva limping in the last few points of the tiebreaker.
"She's never done this before," Fernandez said. "It has to be pretty bad for her to pull out. It's a little bit different than Justine retiring in the finals with a few games left where you thought maybe she could have continued."
Dementieva said she suffered the injury during her second match and even considered retiring in her third-round match. She also said took a painkiller before Thursday's match.
"Just a sharp pain," Dementieva exlained later. "It's very painful even to walk. Even with this pain, I was trying to play, but I don't think I could go longer than that.
"I was pushing very hard myself to go through the pain. I mean, I cannot do more than that. I just try my best. Couldn't do any better."
Dementieva added that she was withdrawing from Eastbourne, a Wimbledon warm-up, and wasn't sure whether she'd play at the All England Club.
When she entered the interview room to scattered applause, Schiavone clapped her hands, tilted her head back and smiled broadly. She was more consistent than Dementieva, and after losing the first two points of the tiebreaker, she ripped off six straight when the Russian missed a few backhands and made two terrible drop-shot choices. The brief bottom line looked like this: 7-6 (3).
"I was ready to take towel," Schiavone said, "and I saw her -- too close. I say, 'Maybe something happen.' And for 10 seconds, I don't know how many seconds, but I couldn't realize [what had happened]. Then I know when you shake the hands, it's finished."
Was she disappointed over how the match concluded?
"Yes," Schiavone said. "A little bit, yes, because I was not ready to finish like this. But I'm not upset, eh? I know her, so I respect. If she decide to finish, she has for sure some good reason."
But then Schiavone added, "Anyway, was long rally, and I don't know how she could play the first set. I don't know."
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For nearly two weeks now, Schiavone has enjoyed a charmed existence. She needed nearly three hours to win her first-round match against Regina Kulikova, the No. 70-ranked player, then feasted on an Australian challenger. Li Na, Maria Kirilenko and injured Caroline Wozniacki were next. And then Dementieva walked away in midmatch.
Stosur, though, has done most of the heavy lifting. She took down four-time champion Henin in the fourth round and then No. 1-ranked Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. Jankovic, merely a former No. 1 and 2008 U.S. Open finalist, must have seemed like a light practice hit.
A month ago, Jankovic beat Stosur in a third-set tiebreaker in Rome. On Thursday, Stosur won in 60 minutes.
A year ago, Stosur met Schiavone in a first-round match here at Roland Garros. Stosur was the last seed and Schiavone unseeded. And here they are in the final. It's the first time since the 2004 French Open that both finalists are making their Grand Slam finals debut.
Stosur was asked on court whether she was ready to win her first Grand Slam title.
"Yeah," she said easily. "Why not? Saturday would be as good a day as any."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Bonnie D. Ford also contributed to this story.
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