Two unsung heroines set for golden opportunity

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The Independent Online

At the start of last month they were journeyman professionals who had never reached a Grand Slam final or the world's top 10 and had won just five titles between them. Today one of them will be crowned French Open champion and by Monday they will be Nos 6 and 7 in the world rankings.

Italy's Francesca Schiavone, who will be 30 later this month, is aiming to become the second-oldest first-time Grand Slam title winner in the Open era behind Ann Jones, who was 30 when she won Wimbledon in 1969. Schiavone's Australian opponent in this afternoon's women's singles final, 26-year-old Samantha Stosur, would be the sixth-oldest.

"It's going to be a great day for both of us, no matter who wins," Stosur said yesterday. "It's going to be a day we're both going to remember."

Schiavone, who has played 731 matches in 15 years on the professional circuit, said: "We know each other very well. I think she deserves to be here. She's played so well in the last two years. I know that she works a lot."

Stosur had to work particularly hard after being struck down three years ago by Lyme disease, a tick-born illness that can affect the nervous system. She was out of the game for seven months and was ranked outside the world's top 150 when she returned. "All through that time, she never got negative," her coach, David Taylor, said. "She never doubted she'd come back."

The Australian owes her surname to her Polish grandfather. She played tennis from the age of eight and made her debut on the International Tennis Federation circuit when she was 14. Athletic, muscular and armed with a big serve and powerful forehand, Stosur made her breakthrough as a doubles player. She won her first singles title last year, beating Schiavone in the final in Osaka.

Although Stosur had never seen a red clay court until she was 15 – when she came to Europe with an Australian junior party and lost every match during a five-week trip – this has quickly become her best surface. She reached the semi-finals here last year and has won more matches (20) on clay this year than anyone. "She's now the No 1 clay-court player on the women's tour," Taylor said. "She always had the shots. Now she has the belief."

Schiavone, who used to live in London but returned recently to Milan, showed her love of clay when she kissed the court surface here after both her quarter-final and semi-final victories. Asked what she would do if she won today, Schiavone made a scooping motion with her hands and said: "I'll take all the clay like this and bring it home."

The Italian is a counter-puncher who relies on her speed around the court and heavy spin, but she has often lacked self-belief against the top players. She has lost 10 of her 13 finals. This week, however, she has put out two top-five players in Elena Dementieva and Caroline Wozniacki.

While Schiavone is attempting to become the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam title in the Open era, Stosur would be the first Australian woman to win a major crown since Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980. It would be a remarkable achievement for either player, given where they have come from. When they met in the first round here last year – Stosur won in straight sets – they played in front of fewer than 200 people out on Court 8. Today the whole of the tennis world will be watching.

* Serena and Venus completed a "Williams Slam" of four consecutive Grand Slam doubles titles when they beat Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik 6-2, 6-3 yesterday to win the French Open crown. It was their 12th Grand Slam doubles title. On Monday they will become the top-ranked doubles pairing, making Serena the world No 1 in both singles and doubles.