Saturday June 9th, 2012

Sara Errani is 9-2 in three-set matches this year, and 4-2 in tiebreaks.
Christophe Ena/AP

It's hard to imagine a bigger pair of opposites than the two women who will contest the French Open final on Saturday. In one corner stands Maria Sharapova. She of the 6-foot-2 frame and three major titles, who broke through at 17 to win the most treasured of titles at Wimbledon. Power baseline game. Recovering "cow on ice." The Russian from Siberia with blood that would make ice shiver is on the verge of becoming the 10th woman to complete the career Grand Slam, and she will try to do it on what is inarguably her worst surface.

In the other corner, Sara Errani. Listed at a generous 5-4, the fiery Italian gives up nearly a foot to her opponent. She may be the same age as her Russian counterpart, but at 24, Errani is -- like most of the Italians -- a late bloomer. Seven years after Sharapova made her first Slam final, Errani is into hers and it just so happens to be on her best surface. Crafty clay-court chess master. Mighty Mouse with a Babolat shield. Vanquisher of three major champions all with substantial clay bona fides.

On the surface this is a contrast of styles, personalities and storylines. But dig a little deeper and you quickly realize these two have more in common than you think.

They know how to win: Winning begets winning, and these two are second to none. Literally. Sharapova and Errani are the winningest players on the WTA Tour this year, amassing 35 victories apiece and capturing multiple titles. You don't accumulate that many wins in five months of the season without repeatedly going deep in tournaments and winning titles. That's precisely what these two have done all year.

Errani, who came into 2012 with a mere two titles, has already won three this year via a 16-match clay winning streak until Madrid, where she lost to Agnieszka Radwanska. While Errani was building her confidence and momentum in the lower echelons of the WTA Tour, Sharapova was doing it at the biggest non-majors. She's riding a 15-match winning streak on red clay, with titles in Stuttgart and Rome, and she is one win away from going undefeated on the red stuff this year. Maria Sharapova, undefeated on European red clay. I'm going to need to read that a few times until it makes sense.

They're clutch: Major finals always carry with them extra pressure, but this year's Roland Garros final is a completely different story. With so much history at stake for Sharapova and (potentially) a chance of a lifetime for Errani, which one of these two ladies will crumble under the weight of her own hopes and expectations? Well, here's the good news: Both women are tough as nails when things get tight. Since the beginning of 2011, Sharapova is 20-1 in three-set matches and 8-0 this year. Errani's record isn't much worse. She's 9-2 in three-setters this year. And in tiebreakers -- tennis' ultimate pressure cooker -- Sharapova is 5-2 this year, with Errani right there at 4-2.

Like I said, the pressure of a major final is completely different from a second-round match in Estoril. But here's hoping the stats hold up and this match stays about the tennis and tactics, and less about that ugly "c" word that rhymes with "choke."

They back themselves: It would be easy to discount Sharapova's talent in so many ways. I've seen people disavow her talent because of her extreme marketability (i.e., pretty girls can't play sports), that she gets a disproportionate amount of attention because she photographs well, and that her pocketbook outweighs her achievements. But here's what you have to respect about what Sharapova has been able to do since being sidelined by shoulder surgery that threatened to end her career: She rehabbed, returned to the tour and fought to get back on top, leaving no stone unturned in search of solutions. She switched rackets, she split with longtime friend, coach and hitting partner, Mike Joyce, and tweaked her serve in order to alleviate the pain and stress caused by her injury. For someone as successful as Sharapova, these were all huge risks and they didn't yield immediate rewards. Her double-fault counts were a punch line, a Twitter account purporting to be her shoulder popped up, and she suffered some bad, bad beatings. But she kept going, kept plugging and kept believing that she was doing the right thing for her career. I'm not sure where that faith comes from when you're in her Cole Haans, but I do know this: That's not faith in another person or universal entity. That's faith in yourself.

Similarly, how does Errani explain her sudden rise? She has no clue. She says she's fitter now but she's not sure that's the reason for her surge. She worked out the same during this offseason as she has in the past, she says. But oh, yeah. She changed her racket. Errani reportedly paid Wilson $30,000 to get out of her contract so that she could switch to a longer, heavier Babolat racket. That Babolat, she says, has been a huge reason for her success. It's allowed her to close the power gap between with the bigger, stronger women, and while she still doesn't hit as hard as the powerful bashers, she now hits just hard enough to give herself a fighting chance. When you think about how many racket changes have got awry for players -- Novak Djokovic struggled with his new Head, Roger Federer refuses to switch to a larger head on his Wilson racket, Caroline Wozniacki's switch from Babolat to Yonex seems to have lost her some power -- Errani's affirmative switch is commendable. Here's a woman who saw a deficiency and found a solution and took a very big risk with an eye toward improving her game. That's not a small thing. So when these two women walk out on court to contest what could end up being the biggest match of their careers, it'll be easy to sit back and marvel at their differences. After all, the beauty is in the differences, in the contrast of styles, in the power vs. the guile. But it'll be just as important to think about their similarities as competitors. The hunger, the determination and the willingness to take control of their careers. That's how they got here.

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