PARIS — At last, the world was finally back on its axis.
This had been a far-too-whacky French Open. Saint Roger of the Eternal Victory committed that most cardinal of sins — losing before the semis. An Australian (a woman, no less) beat two former No. 1s – Justine Henin and Serena Williams – to reach the semis, and a spindly, 29 year-old veteran (who was hardly a household name) became the first Italian to reach the Roland Garros semis since Eisenhower was president.
But Elena Dementieva was intent in putting some sense and sensibility back into a tennis world that, except for a lad named Rafa Nadal, had gone a bit bonkers. It only made sense that the long familar Dementieva (who’s graced many a big stage) and has a Russian pedigree would be the one to set things straights. So when she went up 2-0 in the first set tiebreak against Francesca Schiavone, all seemed good. There was was hope for just a tad of universal harmonic balance.
Then the deluge.
For some reason, Dementieva tried a couple of suspect drop shots. What was that all about? Then before you could bark out, “I’ll take a pepperoni with extra cheese,” her foe, the appealing Italian vet, reeled off seven of eight points to claim the tie-break. Now, Schiavone had to put her mind on the formidible task of winning one more set to book her slot in the final.
But her thoughts were interrupted.
The tall, erect Russian suddenly was hobbled. She pulled down her sky-blue Yonex visor, wept and went over to the Italian – “No mas – I can’t continue.”
Now we saw the greatest double take in tennis history.
Dazed and uncertain, the Italian froze. What did she just say. What’s happening – blank…nothing. Wait, she most have thought. That girl just shook my hand. Schiavone’s elastic, incredibly expressive face, slowly gained just a hint of recognition, the crescendo of emotion began.
She quit, she must have realized. That means I won. Finally, her “la dolce vita” smile emerged – slowly. The realization hit, a considerable flood of joy.
She would be into her first Grand Slam final. Mama mia, the first Italian women ever to reach the French final. There was nothing to do but kiss the court, just like she did when she dismissed Caroline Wozniacki. Later, she reported that yes the court tasted good. Then I asked her what she thought when Elena told her she was quitting.. “First of all, when I won the first set, I say, That’s a good way, because I won not to waiting her mistake but to push and to try to do something. So I was very focused on my tactic and on my play. So was happy to catch that set.
Then when I see — I was ready to take towel, I did like this, and I saw her too close. [Laughter.] I say, Maybe something happen. And for 10 seconds, I don’t know how many seconds… I couldn’t realize.
Then I know when you shake the hands, it’s finish. So then my mind came where I was.
I followed up, asking “Have you ever been so shocked in a tennis match?”
She replied, “there are many things that the woman do that you can shock. Whoo.”
Whoo is right. Who would have expected an Aussie-Italian French final. Yes, it’s true that Schiavone and Sam Stosur have played here before (Just last year, Stosur won here on an obscure back court in the first round).
Now Schiavone will take her savvy mobile game to the final against the hottest player in the game. A semifinalist here last year, Stosur came into the French with more clay court wins for the season than anyone else. She dismissed the beloved four time champ Henin. Then — when down match-point to Serena in the quarters — she survived a looping (where will destiny take it) forehand that seemed to stop time, before it floated, just a tad long. Of these shots, tennis history is made.
Until recently, Stosur, an eminently likable (“what you see is what you get jock”) hasn’t been a likely canidate to make tennis’ history books, at least in singles. Plus, as an Aussie, she hasn’t always loved clay. After all, she crashed out in the qualifying in ’03. But work, athleticism, love of the game and a steady learning curve have their value. Now she is the first Aussie to reach the French final since Wendy Turnbull in’79. She survived a serious bout with Lyme disease and was determined to become more than a great dubs player. Based in Flordia, she has slowly risen in the ranks. (Although, if she wins here, she’ll “only” be No. 6)
Nonetheless, a member of her tiny entourage said she was bound to be dominant on clay, “the Nadal of the women’s tour.”
Whoa mate, not so fast. But both her power forehand and high-kicking serve present serious match-up problems. Just ask Jelena Jankovic, the Indian Wells champ and former No. 1 who reached the ’08 U.S. Open final, but during her reign atop the rankings was haunted by the claim that she was an illegitimate ruler. She hadn’t won any of the game’s biggest crowns. An adept mover and counter-puncher with plenty of fight, desparately wanted to claime her first Slam. But on this day she suffered a “Grand Sam” defeat 6-1, 6-2 free of much drama.
Dementieva also desperately wanted to claim a Slam title. Eight times over the past eleven years she reached a semi, three other times she got to finals.
If tennis was based on baseline movement and groundies, the Russian swan would have graced many a winner’s podium. But there always was a fly in the elegant Dementievan onintment. There was that flawed second serve that seemed to be going backwards at 75 MPH and more recently there was a kind of lucky flick volley Serena hit on match-point, which kept Elena out of last year’s Wimbledon final. Now this year at Roland Garros, the Russian suffered a debilitating calf muscle in the second round. Then, in today’s semi, the injury became too much. She didn’t even call a trainer, but historians recalled Henin pulling out of the ’06 Aussie Open final against Amelie Mauresmo and Novak Djokovic defaulting out of the ‘07 Wimbledon semis.
Her harshest critics complained, “No way, you don’t pull out of a Grand Slam final.” But Dementieva spoke of enduring a sharp pain and how she tried everything: anti-inflamatories, pain-killers and tape. Ultimately, there is just so much you can do.
“Life is life.,“ said the somber veteran. “Sometimes the injury happens, and you have to just take it as an experience.”
On Saturday tennis will enjoy it’s most unlikely experience in a final in years between two hard-working under the radar veterans, a lean sculputed Milano who would seem to be tennis’ answer to the artist Modigliani and a true Aussie with a modest personality and big strokes.