Thursday, June 5, 2008 Updated: June 7, 1:57 AM ET
The stakes are high for this French Open final
By Greg Garber ESPN.com
After getting crushed in last year's final, Ana Ivanovic is looking for vindication versus Dinara Safina.
PARIS -- On Wednesday, after Dinara Safina survived back-to-back matches that ran a draining total of nearly 5½ hours, she was asked how she would recover in time for the match of her life.
"I am young," she said sweetly. "When emotion takes over, like when you're on fire, then you don't think any more."
Safina, after crushing Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-2 on Thursday, is still blazing hot. The 22-year-old has won 12 straight matches on clay, something even Rafael Nadal (who's riding a modest six-game streak) can't say. Safina is also a Grand Slam singles finalist for the first time. Her Adidas advertising slogan -- "Impossible is nothing" -- captures her dazzling ascent.
Her opponent in Saturday's French Open final will be Ana Ivanovic, a fresh-faced 20-year-old who took down fellow Serbian Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the second semifinal. Ivanovic is guaranteed the world No. 1 ranking come Monday, a career first.
"I am very thrilled," said Ivanovic. "Afterwards in the locker room the woman told me about being No. 1. On the other hand, the tournament hasn't ended. I have another tough match against Dinara, so that's all I want to focus on today."
With the retirement of Justine Henin and the gradual decline of the Williams sisters, women's tennis has come to this: Either Safina or Ivanovic will become a first-time Grand Slam champion.
Safina was asked whether she felt pressure being in the final.
"No," she said. "I mean, they're the ones who are better ranked and better players. They have to prove themselves.
"[I will] give everything I have -- if I have to die. I will die on the court because there is no more [reason] to save energy."
Through her first five matches here at Roland Garros, Safina had logged two hours and 26 minutes more court time than Kuznetsova and lost 13 more games and two more sets. Attrition, however, was not a factor.
Safina was crisper throughout the match and showed more variety in her game, mixing in short, sharply angled balls that kept Kuznetsova off-balance. She was a far better player in the big points; invariably, Kuznetsova made a critical error, more often on the backhand side.
"I felt that being two times away from the tournament and still be here -- God kept me in this tournament [when] I could not," Safina said. "So I said, 'OK, now I'm not going to be any more passive. I have to be aggressive because there will be no third chance that this will happen."
In her previous three-set comebacks against Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva, Safina found herself in a 2-5 hole in the second set on both occasions. When she arrived at that spot on the winning end versus Kuznetsova, serving for the match, she lost the first two points. Safina responded with a forehand winner and a crafty drop shot. When Kuznetsova dumped a service return into the net and, on match point, shanked a forehand, Safina was in the final.
In her ninth year as a professional, Safina finally looks serious. After she opened 2008 with four losses in her first six matches, including four straight, she did some soul-searching followed by work -- hard work -- on conditioning. She never has looked fitter.
"When I would play the top players I would lose a set and, for me, it would be mentally and physically tough to still come back," she explained. "Now I feel like if I still have to play two sets, one hour each, I am still able to do this. If you know physically you can do this, mentally it's also easier."
After a subpar start to the clay-court season, she won all six of her matches in Berlin -- including Henin's undignified send-off -- and now is 6-for-6 at Roland Garros. Her (in)famous temper, the one seen earlier and more often in her older brother Marat, was nonexistent. The only flicker of anger seen in her past two matches was a moment of insanity when she hacked the heads off a few of the potted geraniums sitting courtside in Philippe Chatrier.
Kuznetsova, on the other hand, rifled a few balls into the stands at one point.
"It was pretty horrible," she said. "I couldn't serve. I couldn't play my forehand. I felt pretty bad out there."
When Safina beat Kuznetsova in the first semifinal, it guaranteed that the new No. 1 would be a Serb. It's tough enough to play for a spot on a Grand Slam final, but when you factor in the top spot in the ultimate tennis ladder, well
Ivanovic, three years younger and the far bigger hitter, had won five of their six matches coming in. She always has been a step ahead in their rivalry. Ivanovic steadily has become the most dependable women's finalist in these majors. In the past five, she has reached three finals, one better than Henin and two better than everyone else.
Dinara Safina has knocked off three top-10 opponents en route to the French Open final.
Ivanovic has not only the power but also the nerve to go for lines -- and consistently hit them. This was critical in the match's last game, with Jankovic serving at 4-5. Ivanovic hit a massive forehand service return for a 15-love lead, then at 30-15 flicked a brazen drop shot that Jankovic made no move to retrieve. On the next point, Ivanovic ran around a backhand and pounded a forehand, cross-court winner for match point.
The last stroke was a forehand return of service that rocketed through the court and left Jankovic flat-footed. After she returned to the locker room, Jankovic said, she cried and cried.
"Very, very bad," Jankovic said, calling it the most disappointing loss of her young career. "I'm very disappointed I lost this match. I lost the No. 1 spot. Sometimes you cannot control the injuries, especially with the arm. You could see with her forehand, she could hit it. I would hit as hard as I could and my balls still didn't go anywhere."
Ivanovic, who was destroyed by Henin in last year's Roland Garros final, has mixed memories of that match.
Said Ivanovic, "The other day someone asked me, 'Are you going to forget the final and play a different one?' But I don't want to forget it, because it was a great learning experience. Obviously, I feel like a different player coming into this French Open. A lot of experience I gained from that final and the final in Australia, so I really hope I can make one more step."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.