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At the endpoint of a sensational fortnight that recalls Soderling’s 2009 tournament, Stosur has defeated three of the four main contenders for the French Open title in consecutive matches (Henin, Serena, Jankovic).  The accelerating Australian now faces a highly unexpected adversary, whom she met in her opening match at Roland Garros last year; admittedly aided by injuries to Wozniacki and Dementieva, Schiavone has used her ingenuity and experience to outlast several younger opponents.  While a title for Stosur would signal the beginning of what likely will become an extended sojourn among the elite, a title for Schiavone would represent the culmination of a colorful career highlighted by her Fed Cup achievements.  Colliding on five previous occasions, the Australian has won the last four meetings without losing a set after the Italian secured their first meeting in straight sets.  Three of the seventh seed’s victories occurred last year, although only one happened on clay, so the head-to-head possesses moderate but not overwhelming significance. 

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Probably more relevant is the performance level that both players have maintained in this clay season.  Following her rampage over Charleston’s depleted field, including modestly impressive wins over Hantuchova and Zvonareva, Stosur charged to the Stuttgart final and swiped a set there from Henin before fading.  Absent from Rome, the one-time doubles specialist suffered the misfortune of drawing Venus in the Madrid quarterfinal but did oust Rome champion Martinez Sanchez in the second round.  Her record on clay thus leads all WTA players, somewhat surprisingly considering her offensive style.  On the other hand, Schiavone claimed the Barcelona title with an emphatic triumph over compatriot Roberta Vinci as well as wins over Suarez Navarro and Shvedova.  The Italian’s ability to defuse the Kazakh’s power extended her history of success against inconsistent power players, a pattern of which the Australian must be aware.  Since that Spanish title, the 29-year-old veteran collected only three wins in Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, yet all three of her losses came against the creditable opposition of Wickmayer, Martinez Sanchez, and Venus.  As deceptive as her drop shots, Schiavone’s indifferent record at those events proved no more meaningful than Soderling’s identical record in the Masters 1000 warm-ups.  The Italian enters the final on an 11-set winning streak after dropping the first set of her first match to Regina Kulikova, who also took a set from Sharapova in Stuttgart. 

Showcasing tennis anywhere from boring to mediocre to positively horrific, the WTA Roland Garros finals have produced nothing more dramatic in recent years than the sight of Safina screaming at her sniggering coach.  By contrast, this matchup should be anything but boring, for the finalists not only offer an entertaining contrast of styles but possess more than enough maturity to embrace rather than shrink from the moment.  Stosur bears the pressure of the substantial favorite on her sturdy shoulders, allowing Schiavone to swing freely and attempt her audacious artistry without the inhibitions born of elevated expectations.  Stirring memories of Henin, her scintillating one-handed backhand has crackled through the court to devastating effect; she’ll want to pull Stosur off balance with the shot in order to tempt her into trying for too much.  If Schiavone can orient the cross-court rallies into backhand-backhand instead of forehand-forehand exchanges, she might draw some errors from Stosur’s weaker side on the low balls that often trouble the Aussie.  (We’ve recommended the backhand slice to the seventh seed’s previous opponents, but this advice has thus far fallen on deaf ears; nevertheless, Schiavone has accumulated much more skill on this shot than have Serena and Jankovic.)  Normally one of her key flaws, the Italian’s serve has delivered for her on key occasions during this fortnight, swiping away break points against Wozniacki and Dementieva.  The Australian’s penetrating return should punish most second balls that she receives, though, so Schiavone needs a solid first-serve percentage to stay within range.  Despite Stosur’s equally impressive skills at the net, Francesca should attempt to turn this duel into a contest of finesse rather than power; slugging from the baseline spells almost certain defeat, whereas all-court points might enable her to exploit her superior movement.  Schiavone must do almost everything right just in order to threaten Stosur, but she’s risen to the occasion again and again during her improbable fortnight.

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In addition to another imposing serving performance, Stosur must find the patience to hit one, two, or even three extra balls to close out points against the indefatigable Italian.  Convinced that they had ended an exchange, Wozniacki and Dementieva often were embarrassingly marooned in the forecourt as they watched a passing shot whistle past them from nowhere.  Rather than settling into rallies from the baseline, the Australian needs to move forward aggressively after opening up the court with her forehand.  To some extent, the match will be decided by who approaches the net earlier in the point…and on whose terms they approach.  Likely to hold serve much more comfortably than Schiavone on most occasions, Stosur should take a few risks on her returns and seek to implant seeds of doubt in the Italian’s hitherto bulletproof confidence.  She also can afford to take more risks on her first serve than can the Italian, for her heavy, spinning second serve constitutes a weapons in its own right.  Will Stosur’s inexperience at this level cause her to waver if she arrives at a position to close out the match?  Her first attempt to serve out her quarterfinal against Serena (in the second set) slid rapidly into farce but would have been closer to Greek tragedy had the top seed’s forehand later fallen on the line at match point.  Granted an inch, the opportunistic Francesca almost certainly will seize a mile.  Much less of a momentum player than her opponent, Stosur should prevail if she can maintain her composure (recently one of her greatest strengths) and play one point at a time instead of allowing Schiavone’s sporadic bursts of flashiness to fluster her.  It’s a formula that has consistently worked for her in the past against the Italian, and we think that it will succeed one more time after a pair of reasonably competitive, often entertaining sets. 

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Stosur

Return:  Stosur

Forehand:  Stosur

Backhand:  Schiavone

Volleys:  Even

Movement:  Schiavone

Mental:  Even

After ambushing a host of more heralded opponents, let’s hope that these two veterans showcase their distinctive talents in a beguiling final.  Who will earn the coveted right to cuddle Ana’s old friend tomorrow?

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