For both Maria Sharapova and Sara Errani, reaching the finals of the 2012 French Open is cause for celebration. To put it lightly, the two, born just 10 days apart in 1987, have taken incredibly divergent paths to Saturday's match.
For Sharapova, the celebration has already begun. Winner of 30 career tournament titles and three grand slams, Sharapova will be ranked No. 1 next week no matter who wins Saturday's finale. It is her first trip to the top line in the WTA rankings since the 2008 French Open, when Ana Ivanovic took her place. The last four years have seen her fight through everything from a torn rotator cuff to a faulty serve. For three years, from 2008 to 2011, she only advanced beyond the fourth round of a major once. But she has made the semis of four of the last five and the finals of three of the last four, and Saturday, four years and four months after he last won a major, she has a chance to complete a career slam. Only nine women in tennis' expansive history have pulled off that feat, and only one (Serena Williams) has done so in the last 24 years. This is illustrious company -- Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Maureen Connolly, etc. A win on Saturday would be a magnificent cap to a comeback and an exclamation point on a career that still might have several years remaining in it.
For Errani, the path to the finals was both unlikely and well-earned. Her career record in slams was just 15-17 heading into 2012 and she had never advanced beyond the third round of one. She has been a part of Federation Cup championships, and she has been a solid doubles player for quite a while (she already won this year's French Open doubles title with country mate Roberta Vinci). But it is unlikely that even she saw this singles run coming, especially considering the tough draw she received. Errani had to defeat 2008 French champion Ivanovic in the third round, 2009 French champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth, one of the tour's hottest players in Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals and big-hitting U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur in the semis. Done, done, done and done. Errani began 2012 ranked 45th and will rise into the Top 20 next week.
This match's winner will be determined by two primary factors:
Errani's First Serve. Even in a win against Stosur in the semifinals, Errani won only 15 percent of her second-serve points, but managed to land her first serve in 86 percent of the time. Stosur, a power hitter just like Sharapova, destroyed Errani's second offering 11 of 13 times, but Errani won anyway, in part, because she only had to hit a second serve 13 times in three sets. Errani's first serve is nothing amazing -- she typically wins points between 60 and 70 percent of the time when her first serve lands between the lines -- but it is vital if she wants any chance of winning. Sharapova faced far stronger servers in Petra Kvitova and Kaia Kanepi in the last two rounds, and those two players won just 40 and 26 percent of their second-serve points, respectively.
Sharapova's Unforced Errors. Stosur hit 46 winners against Errani but committed 48 unforced errors. In the fourth round, Kuznetsova landed 26 winners to 38 unforced errors. It does Errani something of a disservice to suggest she needs errors from Sharapova to win -- when she needed offense against Stosur, she got it, wrong-footing the Australian quite often and coming up big when she needed to. That said … Errani probably needs errors from Sharapova to win. Errani did a magnificent job of staying out Stosur's way and maximizing damage when Stosur lost her rhythm, and Sharapova proved in her fourth round match (38 winners, 53 unforced errors in a three-set win over Klara Zakopalova) that she can occasionally spray the ball with the best of them. It is conceivable that a combination of Errani's play and a whipping wind could toy with Sharapova's ground strokes, and if this happens, Errani can certainly pull the upset.
Still, it is difficult to pick against Sharapova in this one. Aside from her glitch-plagued second set against Zakopalova (23 of her 53 errors came in that set alone), she has approached complete domination. She lost just five games in her first three matches and won her quarterfinal and semifinal matches, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. She was less psyched out by the wind than Petra Kvitova in the semis, and she should be able to keep the errors down just enough to beat Errani in straight sets.
Sharapova's discipline has been remarkable to watch. In a women's game filled with players who cannot stay out of their own way (Kvitova, Stosur and Ivanovic quickly come to mind), Sharapova almost comes across as that teacher's pet you used to hate in high school -- she closes her eyes and talks to herself between points, she gives herself little first pumps that she doesn't care to share with the crowd. Only, unlike the teacher's pet, this isn't an act, and it isn't an attempt to impress anybody. She does it because it works. She ends mini-slumps more quickly than any of the tour's big power hitters (even those named Williams), and she has not lost to a player seeded outside of the Top 10 of a tournament since last year's U.S. Open. That streak probably will not end on Saturday, though if you were playing odds, you'd have had Errani losing about three rounds ago.