If you told tennis fans two weeks ago that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer wouldn’t meet in this year’s French Open final, they would have looked at you like you were crazy, stupid or both. They may even have huffed and puffed and turned as pink as Nadal’s lovely shirt telling you so.
If you told the same fans that the top two contenders on the women’s side would meet in the final, they would have laughed at you. They would have told you that the top of women’s tennis has been in disarray since the abrupt departure of Justine Henin, who left tennis while still ranked No. 1.
The joke would have been on them, because it’s the women’s final that’s turning out mostly as planned. The two women who’ve performed the best during the clay court season—the two women many picked to win the French Open—are the same two women who’ll face off in the final this Saturday.
When No. 1 Dinara Safina and No. 7 Svetlana Kuznetsova, both 23-year-old Russians, walk onto the clay courts of the French Open for that final, you should watch. If you want to know why and one reason won’t do, you’re in luck. Here’s why.
To see great tennis
At the start of the tournament most considered Safina and Kuznetsova the top two contenders for the title for a reason: They had the best clay court season, meeting in two of the last three clay court tournament finals. Tennis commentator Mary Carillo went so far as to say they played “some of the best clay court tennis of any season.”
Since taking over the No. 1 ranking on April 20, Dinara Safina has achieved an impressive 20-1 record. The only player to beat her? That would be Kuznetsova. Of the last three big clay court tournaments, Safina won two (beating Kuznetsova in one final) and Kuznetsova won one (beating Safina in the final).
This time around Safina is considered the favorite, as Kuznetsova knows: “She's going to be favorite to win. She's No. 1. She played an unbelievable season. She beat me last time we played.”
So far Safina has met expectations, exceeded them even. She started off by serving up the dreaded double bagel (6-0, 6-0) to Anne Keothavong, who had the misfortune of playing Safina in the first round. To top it off, neither Safina nor her coach was fully satisfied with the match. “I’m going to go and hit some balls,” Safina said. “There's always things to improve on.”
The overall head-to-head record is 8-5 in Safina’s favor, but their head-to-head record on clay is 4-4. Not that it matters to Kuznetsova. “I think it's a new match,” she said. “Doesn't even matter if I won 15 times before or she won 15 times before. It's a completely new day. Everything could be different.”
To see tennis players best known for being, well, tennis players
There will be no body glitter. At last year’s US Open final, Jelena Jankovic looked like she might head out for drinks afterwards without changing (or applying more glitter). You can be sure Safina and Kuznetsova won’t look like that.
Within a year of winning last year’s French Open final, Ana Ivanovic made it to No. 11 in FHM magazine’s sexiest women list. These two may not even have heard of FHM. They probably won’t overtake Serena Williams as the highest-earning female athlete in history. They’re not likely to complain.
This isn’t to suggest that Safina and Kuznetsova don’t ever glam up for pretty pictures or that Ivanovic and Jankovic are too obsessed with glitter and beauty to dedicate themselves to tennis. In fact, all of them are considered very hard workers.
With Safina and Kuznetsova though you get the sense that the tennis is what matters and the rest is a burden they have to bear.
Jankovic was asked about her smiling and laughing and generally carrying on during the US Open final. “I got the trophy here, and you know what I was thinking?” she said. “Because commentators [talked] about this drama and all, I should have gotten an Oscar.” (She clarified that she wouldn’t settle for Best Supporting Actress.)
You’re unlikely to hear Safina and Kuznetsova mention Oscars during their post-match interviews, jokingly or not.
To remind us what a Grand Slam final looks like without Serena Williams
For the past few years tennis watchers have come to expect at least half of the top 10 rankings to be occupied by Russians. Yet this will be only the third all-Russian Grand Slam final.
Serena Williams is one reason why. This will be the first Grand Slam final in a year without her. She was in the finals of the last three, winning the US Open last September and the Australian Open this January and settling for second (to her sister Venus) at Wimbledon last July.
When Serena said recently that she was the ‘real No. 1’, the media jumped on her comment and would have gone bonkers printing it in newspapers the world over had a Serena/Safina final materialized. It’s hard to say whether Safina would have preferred to see Serena so she could have the opportunity to beat her and answer any lingering questions about the top ranking.
Chances are she’s glad Serena won’t be on the other side of the net come Saturday. After all Serena has 10 Grand Slam titles, which is more than everyone else in the top 10—combined.
One person who did want Serena to be there is Serena. In her post-match interview after losing to Kuznetsova in a tough three-set quarterfinal match, Serena was her usual self: “I got really tight, and I pretty much gave it to her. It was like, ‘Here, you know, do you want to go to the semis? Because I don't.’ She was like, ‘Okay’.”
To see a first-time French Open winner (definitely) and a first-time Grand Slam winner (possibly)
Kuznetsova has one Grand Slam title; she won the US Open in 2004. If she wins on Saturday she'll get her first French Open title.
The possible first being mentioned more and the one that would be more significant is the first Grand Slam title Safina will get if she wins on Saturday. Like other players who’ve ascended to the No. 1 ranking without a Grand Slam title, Safina is badgered by tennis journalists questioning the legitimacy of her ranking.
Winning the title would substantiate her ranking in the minds of others and perhaps also in her own. It would also be a great reward for the physical and mental transformation Safina has made over the past year.
"Hopefully it will be third time lucky for me,” said Safina, who’s been a Grand Slam finalist twice. However, she added, "It will be great if I have a Grand Slam, but the way I'm playing I think it shows enough that I deserve this spot. I just want to go out there on Saturday and play my game."
Because what else do you have to do Saturday morning?
In the US the women’s final will air on NBC at 8:00 AM Central Standard Time. For more information, you can refer to the official French Open website.