Schiavone, Li vie for French Open title

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SCHIAVONE
LI

Can't stop Schiavone's momentum

Garber By Greg Garber
ESPN.com
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PARIS -- First of all, Ravi, let me say that I really, really like Li Na.

She's engaging, with a mischievous sense of humor that still comes across in her second language, English. She's got great groundstrokes, and for the past two Grand Slams, no one has been more consistent. Oh, and she had the guts to fire her husband, Jiang Shan, as coach and demote him to hitting partner. Yes, there are lots of reasons to root for her to win her first Grand Slam singles title -- not the least of which is that the great sleeping giant that is China would receive a tremendous spark for its tennis program.

That said, Francesca Schiavone will successfully defend her French Open title.

It's that simple, Ravi. Sure, Li has reached two straight major finals, but Schiavone has reached the past two finals here and that means something. Clearly, her muscle memory kicked in as she raced through the field here for the second straight year. She's won her past 13 matches at Roland Garros and that kind of momentum cannot be underestimated.

More important, one of those 13 victims was Li herself.

Yes, last year Schiavone unstrung her 6-4, 6-2 in the third round. Don't think this isn't percolating somewhere in the back of Li's mind. Confidence is a contagious thing; Schiavone really has seemed to enjoy herself here this fortnight. At one point during the semifinal she headed a ball across the net, eliciting applause from the pro-French crowd -- and a broad smile from Schiavone.

Clay is a wearing surface, and at the end of seven matches, there's not much left in the tank. For nine straight years, the champion here has won in straight sets.

Both players have come to success relatively late in their careers; Li is 29 and Schiavone is 30. Thus, they'll both come out swinging with a sense of urgency. Schiavo, as her friends and family call her, will come out with more.

You can call Li French Toast.

Li's hard work gives her the edge

Ubha By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com
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PARIS -- Greg, let me first say that I'm a Francesca Schiavone fan. I mean, how can you not root for her? She's one of the tour's veterans, and in an era of one-dimensional baseliners, she mixes it up by slicing and dicing. She's a joy to watch with a huge heart to match.

But can we look at her draw for a second? Schiavone only reached the final four because Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova's nerves overcame her. Let's forget the euphemism; what I am trying to say is she gagged.

Jelena Jankovic is no longer a serious threat on any surface and Shuai Peng retired in the third round.

Facing Li Na is a serious step up in quality.

Li knocked out three serious contenders in Paris, all of whom have been among the hottest players on the circuit: Petra Kvitova triumphed in Madrid, Victoria Azarenka at one point had won 20 straight matches -- not factoring in her retirements -- and Maria Sharapova won the championship in Rome. Downing Kvitova certainly helped Li's confidence, considering the tall Czech crushed her in Madrid.

Just as Schiavone might look at her rally against Pavlyuchenkova as a turning point, Li probably thought she had a chance of winning it all after coming back from 3-0 down in the final set versus Kvitova.

Pavlyuchenkova is one of the purest ball-strikers in the women's game, mirroring Li. Schiavone is going to struggle trying to repel those imposing forehands and backhands.

Unlike Pavlyuchenkova, when Li gets into a winning position, she has enough experience to get past the finish line. Her time in Melbourne will help in that respect. Oh, and Li is a much better mover, and athlete, than Pavlyuchenkova.

Li is a player of destiny.

She came close at the Australian Open, but this is her, and China's, time. Li battled through a post-Australian Open slump and beating Schiavone on Saturday will be her reward.