Let’s take a look at Sara Errani’s unlikely run to the Roland Garros final. Prior to this year, Errani had won just one match at the French Open. No, that’s not a typo. In her first four visits to Paris, she was dumped out in the first round. She got her first win just last year over Christina McHale. How did she earn that victory? By coming back from 0-5 down in the final set to win the match 6-7 (4), 6-2, 9-7.
With that kind of momentum we really should have seen this run coming, huh?
But in all seriousness, while there were signs this year that Errani was having a career surge — she made her first Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open, has won three titles on clay, and came into Paris as the winningest woman on clay this year — Errani had yet to prove that she truly belonged in the same room, let alone breath, as the WTA’s Elite Corp. That’s not a spot at the table that’s readily given. You earn it by doing one simple thing: beat the top players on the biggest stages. It’s as simple as that. Sure, you can grab your tiny titles here and there, beating up on a bunch of relative no names en route, but if you want to eat lunch with the Serenas, Marias and Vikas, you have to do it when it counts.
Heading into Paris, Errani had yet to prove she could beat the best players. Despite her career year, Errani came into Paris with a 1-27 record against top 15 players, an 0-28 ticker against top 10 players, and she was coming off back-to-back second-round losses to top five players at the biggest WTA clay events in Madrid and Rome. Look at all the stats and the history, and the file says Errani, ranked No. 23 and who came into Paris as the No. 4 Italian, makes the fourth round at best. Reality now says Errani will leave Roland Garros cracking the top 10 for the first time in her career to become the No. 1 Italian, notching her first two wins over top 10 players in Angelique Kerber and reigning U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, and quite possibly a Slam champion.
“I don’t feel like top 10 but now I will be, so it’s a strange sensation,” Errani told reporters after the match. “Maybe my problem always was that I couldn’t believe too much to win with the strong players. But now I beat three in a row. I’m in the final in a Grand Slam. So I have to maybe try to think a bit different. I don’t know to explain.”
Errani may not be able to explain her success so I’ll try to do it for her. Much like her countrywoman Francesca Schiavone (be prepared to see those two names alongside each other for the next few days), Errani has built her success in Paris by being the one thing that is missing in the WTA: a clay court specialist. In a game that is ruled by big hitters who have simply lifted their hard court games onto clay with a few tweaks in their footwork, Errani is a throwback. At 5-foot-4, she’s come to accept that she can’t out-hit the “Big Babes” that rule the game. But clay isn’t supposed to be about power. Claycourt tennis is chess, where tactics and strategy aforethought can neutralize power and precision. Just ask Schiavone or Justine Henin, two undersized players who knew how to create angles, cut off angles, and defend their serves against an offensive onslaught.
That’s precisely what Errani did Thursday against Sam Stosur. She knew she had no chance against Stosur’s vaunted kick serve if she stood back to return. She stood inside the baseline, taking the serve on the rise and taking time away from Stosur immediately. She knew her second serve was a liability against Stosur’s big forehand (she won a mere two points on it for the match), so she dialed in and made sure Stosur was never going to see that second serve. Errani landed 86 percent of her first serves for the match, and while she wasn’t topping out on the speed gun or firing down aces, it was enough to put pressure on Stosur’s return, which began to break down as her stress and frustration mounted. And for her last magic trick, Errani exposed the Stosur backhand by pounding the ball wide to Stosur’s forehand. That’s the book on Stosur, but few women have the guts to hit to her forehand for fear of what might come back. But Errani used her angles well, pulling Stosur just wide enough to get a short ball to pound back down the line. Much like Schiavone did two years ago when she beat the Aussie in the final, Errani played a near perfect match that hinged on her ability to commit to a risky gameplan, execute, and in the tense moments, play without fear.
Playing without fear is precisely what propelled Stosur to her first Slam title last September, where she played the match of her life to beat Serena Williams in the final. Given her Slam record, it’s safe to say that no one plays the role of underdog better than Stosur. And no one plays the presumptive favorite worse. Faced with the prospect of once again losing to an inspired Italian on Court Philippe Chatrier, Stosur couldn’t hit through her nerves. After falling behind 0-3 in the final set, it looked like Stosur had found her way back into the match, reeling off three straight games to level the match. Then Errani stepped up and snuffed out any sense of hope by holding at love. That’s when the shanks started coming off Stosur’s racket, and in a blink of an eye, Errani was flat on her back in tears as Stosur walked to the net for the handshake, losing 7-5, 1-6, 6-3. Once again, she leaves the scene of some of her greatest triumphs empty-handed and full of disappointment.
So can Errani finish off the unthinkable? She’s headed into the final having never faced Maria Sharapova, who regained the No. 1 ranking with her 6-3, 6-3 win over Petra Kvitova in the other semifinal. As we’ve seen year after year in Paris, there’s nothing more dangerous than playing someone with nothing to lose. Sharapova is also into her first French Open final and she’s trying to become the 10th woman to complete the career Grand Slam. How fitting would it be that she would do it on the same court where she relinquished the No. 1 ranking in 2008, after losing to Dinara Safina and telling the French crowd to … well, you know. A few months after that loss Sharapova was forced off the tour with a shoulder injury that required surgery. After being sidelined for eight months, she returned with, how do I put this kindly, a “shaky” serve. That serve has been the bane of her comeback ever since. So how fitting was this scene: Sharapova’s first serve attempt against Kvitova bounced before it even hit the net. Her last serve of the match? A second serve ace. You’ve come a long way, baby.
So who will be destiny’s child on Saturday? On paper, all signs point to Sharapova. But we’ve tried this paper thing before. When faced with the prospect of the greatest achievement of your career, paper goes out the window.