- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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PARIS -- How is it possible that Samantha Stosur, for all of her muscular gifts and on-court fluency, has won only three titles in a decade on the WTA Tour?
Why haven't the fear-invoking forehand and that marvelous high-kicking serve carried her to greater heights?
The answer, of course, lies between her ears.
The 28-year-old Australian -- who Dominika Cibulkova referred to as a man (twice) -- has built a physical fortress around her; she is the most well-defined player on the women's side. But her psyche remains an exceedingly delicate thing. Everyone tightens in moments of tension, feels that rattle and hum in their ears and heart, but Stosur's struggles under duress have sometimes been painful to watch.
On Thursday, Stosur faced another undersized and overlooked Italian, Sara Errani, in the semifinals of the French Open. Errani had never been this far in a major and she was previously 0-5 against the No. 6-seeded Stosur, but it didn't matter.
Errani won 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 and vaulted into Saturday's final against Maria Sharapova.
After she had lashed the last forehand into the open court, the 5-foot-5 Errani fell back on the red clay on Court Philippe Chatrier, completely prone, and covered her eyes. And when she jumped up, you could see the joy in her arresting big blue eyes.
"It's incredible for me," Errani said later. "I didn't expect it, and I'm here. So I don't know what to say. For the match, I think it was very difficult. It's not [finished], so I have one match more. I have to think about that."
When it truly mattered, Stosur could not function. Serving to level the match at 3-4 in the third set, she constricted badly at deuce. A double fault (4 feet long) and an irrational, seriously overcooked forehand gave the No. 21 seed the keys to her first Grand Slam singles final.
In the 2010 final here at Roland Garros, Stosur shrank from the moment in her first Grand Slam singles final, losing to a diminutive Italian player, Francesca Schiavone. In her second major final, however, Stosur was transcendent. She bludgeoned Serena Williams at last year's U.S. Open, losing a total of only five games, and gaining, it was presumed, a more permanent sense of confidence.
"I think you're always going to be a bit nervous going into a semi," Stosur said. "It's a semifinal of a Slam. Of course you're going to be nervous. I don't know if that beforehand affected me throughout the match. I just didn't do enough, really. Just sucks that it happened here today.
"You do it somewhere else, you don't maybe worry about it so much, but here it obviously hurts a lot more."
For Stosur, confidence remains a day-to-day, point-to-point proposition. She is the ultimate front-runner. Stosur has never, ever lost a Grand Slam match after winning the first set, a statistic that has snowballed into a 48-0 record.
"I guess it's a great stat to have," Stosur said after her quarterfinal match, "but when you lose the first set, you want to be able to come back, too."
Wanting is not the same thing as doing, and Stosur is now a troubling 6-35 when she digs herself into a one-set hole.
For Errani, it's been the fortnight of a lifetime.
On Friday she and her best friend, Roberta Vinci, will play for the women's doubles title. On Saturday, she plays for the French Open singles title. And she will find herself the top-ranked Italian woman come Monday and a first-time visitor to the top 10.
Rain delayed the start of this match for more than an hour, and at the outset, it seemed the wet, heavy track favored the lighter-hitting Errani. She created the critical break in the first set with a big forehand that Stosur could only push into the net with a weak backhand volley. The second set went easily to Stosur, who seemed to relax a bit. The third? The two players settled into a pleasing rhythm with Stosur bashing the ball -- willingly trading winners for unforced errors. Errani, using the whole court, had a more artistic approach, working Stosur from side to side, smoothly changing speeds and trajectories.
Stosur had done a decent job of managing her emotions, but in that eighth game, she slowly unraveled. She trailed love-30 and 15-40, but managed to fight back to deuce. And then she completely lost it.
On her way to the final, Errani has beaten two previous French Open champions -- Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova -- and the reigning U.S. Open champion.
"I didn't expect [this]," Errani said. "I don't feel like top 10, but now I will be, so it's a strange sensation, because I have to just after this tournament just relax and think. Maybe my problem always was that I couldn't believe too much to win with the strong players.
"Now I beat three in a row. I'm in the final in a Grand Slam. So I have to maybe try to think a bit different."
Overlooked and undersized? Perhaps, but it didn't stop Sara Errani from reaching the French Open final.