Super-fit Samantha Stosur hopes to end a 30-year wait for an Australian women's Grand Slam champion on Saturday, fired by twin memories of compatriot Pat Rafter and her early European claycourt struggles.
The 26-year-old takes on fellow surprise finalist Francesca Schiavone, the first Italian woman to reach a Grand Slam final, in a French Open title showdown which nobody would have predicted at the start of the tournament.
Stosur, who made the semifinal in 2009, has reached the 2010 Roland Garros final the hard way, defeating four-time champion Justine Henin, top seed Serena Williams, where she saved a match point, and then Jelena Jankovic.
Victory would make her the first Australian woman to take a Grand Slam title since Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon in 1980.
Stosur has developed a potent kick-serve at this tournament, similar to the weapon employed by compatriot Rafter when he won two US Opens.
“I was 12 or 13 at the time when my coach showed me the serve. I picked it up pretty much straightaway,” recalled Stosur.
“All through my juniors up until now, it has been a strength of mine and a weapon, and it's got better and better as the years have gone on.
“I think it is a rarity, so I can pull it out or set myself up for the points in different ways than maybe some girls can.
“I love Pat. I stayed up many nights and was late for school in the mornings because I was watching him play.”
Stosur has enjoyed a roller-coaster affair with Roland Garros as well as European clay, a surface on which she didn't play until she was 15.
Her first appearance at the French Open in 2003 ended in a qualifying defeat.
“I was someone who didn't like a clay court and didn't know how to move and was very impatient,” said the Australian.
“I've kind of turned all those things around. Back then I don't think I had a lot of experience on it, and was never really taught the right way how I could use my game.”
Stosur takes a 4-1 career advantage over Schiavone into Saturday's final, the match coming a year after the two met in the first round here.
She also defeated the Italian in the Osaka final in 2009 for her first title.
“It's quite funny we played each other first round last year and now we're both in the final. I don't actually remember that much about that match. I know it was cold and wet,” said Stosur.
Schiavone, the World No. 17, can become the first woman from outside the top 10 since Margaret Scriven back in 1933 to take the French Open.
She will start as the underdog, but has enough variety in her game, built around the rare sight of a one-handed backhand, to trouble Stosur whose enormous physical strength could over-power the slender Italian.
“I start to feel that this is really big history,” said Schiavone, who reached the final when Russian fifth seed Elena Dementieva quit with a calf injury after she had dropped the first set on a tiebreak in their semifinal.
Her first appearance in a Grand Slam final has come in her 39th attempt.
“Why so late? I think everybody is different. I think it's my time now. Maybe before I wasn't ready. Maybe before I had the chance but I didn't take it,” she said.
Both Jankovic and Dementieva are leaning towards Stosur as the champion.
“She has almost the game of a man. She has a very good kick, which not many women have with very heavy spin,” said Jankovic. “Samantha has a very big chance.”
Dementieva, who has now gone a record 46 Grand Slams without winning a title, believes the Italian will make Stosur work.
“She's in great shape, and she really knows how to play on clay courts, using all the shots to make you run.”
Schiavone, meanwhile, hopes the final will prove that there is more to women's tennis than just endless groundstrokes being launched from the baseline.
“Women's tennis is becoming more and more aggressive,” said the Italian, one of the few players to still execute a backhand one-handed.
“We have a different way, me, Sam, Justin (Henin). But you are born like this. You can't ask me to serve 200kmh or to hit the forehand flat, because I say, I'm sorry. Everybody's different.”