We asked SI.com’s experts to predict Saturday’s French Open women’s final between No. 5 Francesca Schiavone and No. 6 Li Na (9 a.m. ET, NBC). Here’s what they said:
Tennis has a way of making lemonade out of lemons, chicken salad out of chicken, well, you get it. A week ago, the women’s draw was a mess, amplifying ongoing complaints that this is a low ebb for the WTA. Today, we’re two sets from an all-out revolution, the first Chinese Grand Slam champion. In her second straight major final, with a chance at history upon her, Li will handle the moment and she’ll handle the admirable Francesca Schavione. She will have a sizable breakthrough; it will pale in comparison to the breakthrough of the women’s game. Li in two.
On paper, Schiavone should win; she has the experience of last year’s championship run and the whimsical, spinning strokes that Li openly admits discomfort with. But if this French Open has taught us anything about women’s tennis, it’s that past performance, form and logic rarely dictate play these days. Li in three.
It’s hard to pick against Schiavone, who is the defending champion and has the more varied game, but my gut (oh god, not your gut!) says Li Na is ready to win her first Grand Slam singles title and will play with the requisite aggressiveness and steadiness. Both players are so likable, it’s hard to root against either of them; all we can do in this annus horribilis for women’s tennis is to pray for a great match. Li in three.
Joking around with reporters during the week, Li Na expressed her disdain for clay courts and said she prefers opponents who allow her to “just stand there.” No such luck against Francesca Schiavone, who will win her second consecutive French Open in straight sets. It’s a monumental achievement for Li to get this far on such a foreign surface, and in a real test of nerve, she was the steadier player in a blustery semifinal against Maria Sharapova. But on this surface, she’s likely to be confounded by Schiavone’s elegant virtuosity. The contrast will be fascinating, and a wonderful advertisement for the women’s game. Schiavone in two.
Bryan Armen Graham
Schiavone was my pre-tournament pick. Kind of a hunch, I’ll admit, but her stylish tennis is easy to get behind and none of the other contenders really stood out. Now that she’s won 13 straight matches here, however, the artful Italian is my choice for different reasons altogether. It’s not just her diverse shotmaking, keen tactical wit or supreme conditioning (which will give her the edge over Li when the match goes three sets). Rather, it’s Schiavone’s outsized siege mentality, the ability to play her best when her back is up against it — a trait on full display when she rallied from a set and two breaks down against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the quarters. Only Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Justine Henin have successfully defended French Open titles in the Open era. They’ll be in good company Saturday. Schiavone in three.
For me, this match will come down to whether Li can adjust on the fly. She was in control early against Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open final, but then Clijsters made a subtle change in tactics — slowing the pace and changing the trajectory of Li’s low, flat balls — and Li completely fell apart. That’s why it’s so tempting to go with Francesca Schiavone here. Not only is her game built on skullduggery, but she already has a winning blueprint to draw from for this match. That said, Li has plenty of tricks of her own — like the okey-doke she pulled on all of us when disclosing her the semifinal strategy against Maria Sharapova. (She said she was going to come to net more, then surprised with a few deftly placed dropshots.) If she can keep a few tricks in her bag and keep the rallies short, she can take this thing. Li in three.
Click here for SI.com’s men’s final picks. Share your prediction in the comments below.