French Open: Francesca Schiavone and Li Na set for final
- Roland Garros, Paris
- 22 May - 5 June
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Francesca Schiavone and Li Na will strike another blow for the old guard of women's tennis when they meet in the French Open final on Saturday.
Italy's defending champion Schiavone, aged 30, and the 29-year-old Chinese hope Li have the biggest combined age for a Grand Slam final since Jana Novotna played Nathalie Tauziat at Wimbledon in 1998.
It is further evidence that the days of teenaged girls dominating the scene are long gone, and the current crop of younger pretenders have failed to seize their chance at a Slam that has been without the injured Williams sisters, the retired Justine Henin, and lost Kim Clijsters early as she returned from injury.
Li has played her part by seeing off title contenders Petra Kvitova and Viktoria Azarenka along the way, while Schiavone beat leading teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
"The years can help a lot," said Schiavone. "Maybe it's changing a bit because some years ago the champions were always young players: Martina Hingis, the Williamses. Now that's changing.
"It's like wine: if it stays in the bottle more it's much, much better."
And Li also played down the age factor, saying: "It doesn't mean anything. Age is just paper; it's just plus one."
Schiavone and Li have played four times, with two wins apiece, and the most significant of those matches would appear to be the Italian's victory in the third round at Roland Garros last year on her way to the title.
It was a huge surprise that the relative veteran broke through to win one of the sport's major titles and become Italy's first Grand Slam singles champion but it would arguably be a greater achievement for her to come back 12 months later and retain the prize she says she "always dreamed about".
Her kick serve, sweeping single-handed backhand and physical fitness have proved well suited to the Paris clay, and will provide a contrast to the powerful baseline hitting of Li.
"We are not similar players but we are strong people, strong personalities," said Schiavone. "I play the kicker, slice and topspin, she plays much more with power, but the key could be the consistency."
It will be a second Grand Slam final appearance for both women but world number five Schiavone might have the edge having won the title last year.
"Of course it's a final, I can't see the final like the first round," she said.
"It's impossible. It's just a final but you are at the end of a fantastic project, so I think on Saturday I will go on court enjoying, breathing, saying thanks for everything, because for me to arrive in a final is fantastic, it's big emotions."
Li is in a second straight major final, having lost to Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open in January, and again she will carry the hopes of a nation as China waits for a first Grand Slam singles champion.
That defeat in Melbourne prompted a woeful run of form, taking in four consecutive first-round defeats before she rediscovered her form on clay, a surface she had previously struggled on.
Li attributes some of that improvement to a change of coach as she has brought in Dane Michael Mortensen after previously working with her husband Jiang Shan, who is now her hitting partner.
"[Mortensen] trusts me a lot," she said. "He gives me a lot of confidence. Before I was trying to do the exercise on the court but never win the point, but this time I make the point."
Li took Clijsters to three sets in her first Grand Slam final and believes the experience will help her, saying: "This time I know what I should do in the final."
And as ever with Chinese sports stars, there will be huge interest back home as Li has another go at breaking through the Grand Slam barrier for her country.
"It's been another good experience," she said. "I think I proved a little bit for China tennis because I'm sure they showed the match in China, so many children saw the match, and they think that maybe one day they can do the same or even better."