As part of Bleacher Report's French Open coverage team, I've received regular emails over the past week from a Deputy Editor featuring a slew of quality article ideas. Some have been awesome (like counting down 10 big French Open chokes), some... not so much (such as recalling Maria Sharapova's French Open outfits).
But shortly after the women's semifinals wrapped and it was determined Na Li and Francesca Schiavone would meet in the championship round, I spotted a great new story concept in my inbox.
It was to rank the last 10 women's finals at Roland Garros. Can't wait to write that, I thought. Because if there's anything I enjoy more than making lists, it's making lists about crap that nobody remembers and nobody cares about (seriously...just check out my story archive). But it'd be a fun jaunt down Memory Lane anyway.
Until a thought stopped me dead in my tracks: The last 10 women's finals on the sacred red clay of Roland Garros have sucked. Worse than Dinara Safina in a limbo contest. Or Kim Clijsters' ability to dance drunk in heels. While I'm on the subject of Clijsters, it was she who competed in "the best" women's French Open final from the past decade—if you were forced to pick "the best" by an evil monkey holding a knife at your throat, a predicament I find myself in right now.
On an overcast afternoon in 2001, the Belgian watched as one more of Jennifer Capriati's forehands blazed by her, capping off a lengthy 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 victory for the American.
Despite what the scoreline suggests, the match was anything but extraordinary. After a couple sloppy first sets, both women finally got their acts together enough to muster some resistance on serve and it interesting in the third (true tennis fans would admit that they'd rather watch Capriati's heartwarming victory months earlier in Melbourne than the error-fest she and Clijsters put on in Paris any day).
Fast-forward 10 years, though, and I'd trade lungs with Serena if it meant we'd be treated to a three-setter women's final at Roland Garros. Since Capriati-Clijsters, ladies championship matches in Paris have been like Freddy Krueger vehicles: quick, rather gruesome affairs, fraught with sloppy mistakes and/or uncontrollable nerves.
The '02 final was, without a doubt, the worst match in the storied Williams Sister rivalry—literally painful to watch. In '03 and '04, Kim Clijsters and Elena Dementieva came out playing so tight that their steady opponents—Justine Henin and Anastasia Myskina—probably could have beaten them blindfolded.
Same goes for when Henin whipped Mary Pierce, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Ana Ivanovic off the court for her next three successive victories. The finals from the past few years have been tepid at best—Francesca Schiavone's surprise win registering by far as the biggest highlight.
So what about the Italian and her Saturday opponent, Na Li? Can they drag us out of second weekend doldrums (the last 10 men's finals haven't been great either, but at least a few have featured a certain Swiss and Spaniard), can they pave the way for a blockbuster men's championship with some incredible play of their own?
The signs point to yes. Li's beautiful ballstriking in the last two sets of her fourth round match versus Kvitova has carried over seamlessly into her last two matches. Against Azarenka in the quarters, Li took the ball on the rise, played the big points well and stayed positive throughout.
Much was the same against Sharapova on Thursday.
Li came out firing on the forehand and didn't get discouraged when she lost leads in both sets. She also stayed in every one of Sharapova's service games. Her fantastic clay court season so far foreshadows great changes in the world No. 6's game. She's straying from her "baseline ballbasher" tendencies and using her power and fitness to construct points, rather than using them to beat opponents into submission.
One such player who needs no guidance about point construction, though, is Schiavone. It's what got the Italian through close battles with Jankovic in the fourth round and Pavlyuchenkova in the quarterfinals. Her tenacity and variety were nearly unstoppable, however, in the semis against Bartoli. The Italian used her opportunities wisely and fought through several close games, almost always coming out on top.
She's openly admitted to not playing as well as last year, but, like Nadal on the men's side, she's managed to arrive in the final on sheer will and determination. That's got to give her some confidence—and fire her up to play even better on the stage where she so performed so magically a year ago.
This women's championship has all the makings of a classic. Li's power vs. Schiavone's shot selection. The Chinese player's calm poise vs. the Italian's screams, grunts and gyrations. Flat, hard strokes vs. low slice and high-bouncing topspin. The two also have incredible personalities. Li is hilarious and heartfelt in interviews, while Schiavone's effusive behavior usually tends to come through on court.
For Li, the pressure should be off. She know she played well enough in Australia to take that title—maybe more experience in such a grand finale would have done her better versus a steely veteran like Clijsters.
She also knows this is a golden opportunity for her to win a coveted first Slam. Schiavone can't overpower her, and, the way Li's been playing, can't outwit her either. It'll be about the Chinese playing solid, consistent tennis—yet powering through when she sees the chance.
For the Italian, she's happy to be back in the final round. I never thought it would happen again, but she's continued to defy the odds in Paris—as well as take advantage of wide-open draws. That's what will be crucial for Schiavone in the final—using her opportunities well.
Li is no natural clay-court player, and she's also one who can collapse under fits of errors at any given point in time. No doubt the Italian will have these two facts in the forefront of her mind as she tries to slice and dice her way past yet another more powerful opponent.
It's fitting, perhaps, that these two are tied at 2-2 in their head-to-head. They've met each of the last four seasons, alternating wins. Following that pattern, it should be Li's turn to triumph. But Schiavone beat her in Paris handily last year, rolling on by in their third round encounter. However, wasn't it Schiavone who lost in the first round of the '09 French to Stosur—and extracted her revenge in a Slam final a year later?
I'm going with my gut—and my heart—in saying that Li will pull out the win. She's always had the game, but she's finally healthy enough to play like a Slam champion. China needs it. The WTA needs it. But victory won't come easy.
Be prepared, folks, for a French Open women's classic. Final-ly.