Debutantes are worthy of their place in French Open showdown

IT IS the French Open women's final no one could have predicted.

Francesca Schiavone v Samantha Stosur in today's championship match is the biggest surprise yet from a tournament full of them.

Stosur is the first Australian woman to reach a grand slam final in 30 years. Schiavone is the first Italian woman ever to do so (Italian men have a better record – Adriano Panatta was the French Open champion in 1976).

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Venus Williams and her much talked-about dress are gone. So are top-ranked Serena Williams and four-time champion Justine Henin, both beaten by Stosur, who showed those victories were no fluke by drubbing former No1 Jelena Jankovic in Thursday's semi-final.

Stosur cracked the top 10 in the rankings for the first time just last month. The Australian is 26 but hardly a late-bloomer compared with Schiavone, a 29-year-old Italian who will move into the top 10 for the first time next week.

Schiavone is seeded No17. Only once, in 1933, has the title been won by a woman not seeded in the top 10. She and the seventh-seeded Stosur are both are first-time grand slam finalists.

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

Schiavone said it's wrong to think the surprise finalists have nothing to lose, however. "Nothing to lose? No," she said. "When you want something, you have always something to lose."

Their lack of experience on such a big stage raises the worrisome possibility that nerves will decide the women's title – as tends to happen at Roland Garros. Dinara Safina, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Mary Pierce and Elena Dementieva all succumbed to jitters in recent finals.

"There are going to be some nerves," Stosur said. "I'll try and prepare myself as best I can to handle anything that happens."

"For sure I will be nervous," Schiavone said.

After Stosur's semi-final win, her parents and brothers in Australia scrambled to make travel plans so they could attend the match. She has been receiving text messages of encouragement from fellow Australians, including two-time Grand Slam champion Patrick Rafter and Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the last Aussie woman to win a major title, at Wimbledon in 1980.

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Stosur has won two grand slam titles in women's doubles and two in mixed doubles, but until last year she had never been beyond the third round in singles at a major event. She was sidelined for nine months in 2007-08 after contracting Lyme disease, a very serious tick-borne illness that can affect the joints and nervous system. "All through that time, she never got negative," said her coach, Australia Fed Cup captain David Taylor. "And she never doubted she'd come back."

Now Stosur's playing the best tennis of her life, and she has become especially imposing on clay. She reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros last year, and the

muscular Australian can dominate with her serve, blasting it at more than 120 mph or hitting a high-bouncing kick serve that's a rarity on the women's tour. Either way, she sets up her aggressive forehand that has heavy topspin.

"She's now the No1 clay-court player on the women's tour," Taylor said. "She always had the shots. Now she has the belief. She's now just very aware that she's got these two big weapons."

While Stosur relies on power, Schiavone uses her speed to counterpunch, mixing the pace and using lots of spin to keep opponents off balance. As with Stosur, Schiavone's biggest improvement may be in the mental part of the game.

"Fundamentally, Francesca, compared to before, is better at controlling a match," said Italy's Fed Cup and Davis Cup captain, Corrado Barazzutti. "She moves the ball well. She reads the opponent well. This is important. And she plays calmly."

On Monday, two weeks shy of her 30th birthday, Schiavone will become the oldest woman in 12 years to crack the top 10 for the first time.

Playing in her 39th grand slam tournament, she's finally in a final. How long has she waited for the moment?

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"A life," she said. "I think I was born to play tennis, so this a dream, and this is reality now."