PARIS (AP) — There are two key questions going into the French Open women’s final Saturday between Serena Williams and Lucie Safarova.
One is: How healthy will Williams be as she tries to win a third title at Roland Garros and 20th Grand Slam singles trophy in all?
The other: Who is Safarova and how did she wind up in her first major singles final at age 28?
Dealing with what she called “some kind of flu,” the top-seeded Williams did not show up on site Friday, saying in a statement that she skipped practice and a pre-final news conference so she could rest in her Paris apartment and get checked by a doctor.
“It’s just a matter of resting and keeping hydrated — there’s not much else I can do,” Williams said. “I need time, and obviously don’t have a lot of it. … I just have to hope that tomorrow I will be feeling a lot better and able to give my best on court.”
She was lethargic and out of sorts during her 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 semifinal victory over No. 23 Timea Bacsinszky on Thursday, and afterward, Williams said, “I just kind of collapsed.”
If Williams is at her best Saturday, she would be an overwhelming favorite, in part because she is 8-0 against Safarova.
Plus, the 13th-seeded Safarova has never been this far at a major tournament in singles. That’s why she dropped to the court, caking her hands, arms, shoulders and back with red clay, after getting past 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic 7-5, 7-5 in the semifinals.
“She’s finally able to understand what it feels like to actually do what she’s always been able to do. It’s something special,” said Safarova’s coach, Rob Steckley. “She has the belief that she can do it and can be there in a final — and is there.”
This is Safarova’s 40th appearance at a Grand Slam tournament. Only two women in the Open era of professional tennis, which began in 1968, have played in more majors before winning a title: Marion Bartoli, who won Wimbledon two years ago in her 47th, and Jana Novotna, who won Wimbledon in 1998 in her 45th.
Only six women were older than Safarova when they made their debut in a major final. Of them, just one won, Francesca Schiavone, who was a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday at the 2010 French Open.
“It’s been (a) long way and a lot of hours on court,” said Safarova, who is from the Czech Republic. “I have been on tour — it’s my 12th year — and to reach this, finally, it’s just, you appreciate it much more, I think.”
Her biggest success so far has come in doubles. She teamed with Bethanie Mattek-Sands to win the Australian Open in January, and they reached the French Open final by eliminating Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 on Friday.
The last woman to win singles and doubles titles at the same French Open was Mary Pierce in 2000.
Safarova has been coached by Steckley for nearly three years, but they’ve known each other for six. He remembers a far different person back then.
“Very closed. Didn’t know when to laugh. Over the years, she’s gradually kind of been opening up. … That was a key component to having her loosen up and stop putting all that pressure on those moments that come in a match,” Steckley said. “The key was to get her mind off of these moments hours before they start. And now she’s a player who’s in the moment.”
He saw evidence of the “new” Safarova in the way she recovered against Ivanovic after getting broken at 5-4 in the second set, hitting three double-faults, including one on match point.
Safarova did not let the stress get to her, though, taking the next two games.
“You could see it in her face,” Steckley said. “She knew what happened, kind of looked back and said to herself, ‘This is not going to happen again.'”
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