A small, unheralded Italian and a very tall, very famous Russian made it through to the final of the French Open here at Roland Garros.
For Sara Errani — who defeated reigning US Open champion Samantha Stosur 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 — it was a dream beyond dreams. But for Maria Sharapova, the crushing 6-3, 6-3 victory against reigning Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova took her just one step closer to the final card in the pack, the only Grand Slam title she has yet to win.
Even the dizzy heights of No. 1 in the world will not be new to Sharapova, because she has been there before, back in August 2005. But this victory has ensured she will oust Victoria Azarenka from the top spot next week.
Sharapova and Errani are both 25 years old, but their professional lives to this point have trodden such different paths that they might have been playing on different planets. Sharapova’s storied career, with a Wimbledon title at 17 and the riches that followed — reputed to be $25 million a year now — is well known.
Errani, who was ranked 359th the year Sharapova became No. 1, had been stagnating in the 40s for four years until she decided to switch to a racket with a longer handle and promptly mopped up clay-court titles the past few weeks in Acapulco, Budapest and Barcelona. Now she is in a Grand Slam final and “can’t believe it” — a phrase she repeated in wonderment several times after sobbing with joy into her towel before leaving Center Court.
There was no doubting the merit of her victory despite the fact Stosur made life easier for Errani in the final set by making some huge errors as she tried to repeat her dominance of the second set. Confronted by a roadrunner who mirrors David Ferrer in the men’s game with her ability to get everything back and wrong-foot her opponent, Stosur knew she had to be aggressive. It seemed especially important for Stosur after telling people how she had not been aggressive enough when she lost to another Italian, Francesca Schiavone, in the final here two years ago.
But, in difficult conditions with the wind getting gustier, Stosur just could not control that big forehand. Having broken back from 1-3 down in the third, she ballooned two balls yards out of bounds when she had two break points at 15-40 in the seventh game, then sliced a backhand on a third break point right into the bottom of the net. Errani accepted the gifts gratefully and broke again as Stosur knocked more balls out of play.
“I think I am capable of doing more — I’ve proved it at the US Open — but it’s disappointing when you don’t do it,” Stosur said. “You keep working hard every day, and then you have a day when you feel like you’ve let yourself down, so it’s obviously very disappointing.”
Errani bubbled on in English and Italian, trying to come to terms with what she had achieved. “It’s incredible for me,” she said. “I didn’t expect it, and I’m here. So I don’t know what to say. For the match I think it was all very difficult. Before maybe my problem always was I couldn’t believe too much to win against strong players. Now I beat three in a row (Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova — both former champions — and Stosur). So maybe I have to try to think a bit different!”
After receiving a huge bouquet of pink and white flowers and a trophy to mark her return to No. 1, Sharapova spoke about what it all meant to her after being out of the game with shoulder surgery.
“It’s a long road back, it’s a long process,” she said. “It’s a lot of days of frustration and uncertainty not knowing if you’ll ever get there; not knowing how much you want it, not knowing whether it would be a moment like that for you again. But it’s all really worth it because, I mean, I have played tennis since I was 4 years old. I committed myself to this sport. I’ve always loved what I did. When it was taken away from me for a while, that’s when I realized how grateful I was and how lucky I was to be playing it.”
If the image is still that of a haughty diva, it should be dispelled. Sharapova is a realist; a thorough professional who has her feet firmly planted on the ground. She would laugh at herself if you tried to emphasize just how firmly planted because she has never been the fastest player, nor the steadiest one with her footwork on clay. But she has worked hard to improve those deficiencies, and the improvement has been there for all to see — not just here these past few days, but in Rome, where she defended the title she had won so surprisingly the year before with another commanding display.
Thursday’s match was probably the most impressive she has played at these championships. Kvitova is a powerful hitter who knows how to win big matches, but Sharapova never allowed her to get a grip on the match.
“I think most importantly it was about playing a solid match,” Sharapova said. “I think patience was very important today because in windy conditions like this, so many things equal out. If you get frustrated by a few mistakes, it can let you down. I was also facing a tough opponent who has given me a lot of trouble in the past, so I was really happy to be able to win in two sets.”
Sharapova actually won it with a second serve ace. For a player who struggled so long with double faults and the aftereffects of surgery, it was the perfect way to reach her first Roland Garros final.