By Alison Williams
Even though Romania’s Simona Halep is the higher seed, at four, Maria Sharapova is the household name, the face on the billboards and is playing in her third successive French Open final.
Halep has not dropped a set on the way to challenging for the Suzanne Lenglen Cup, and the 1,650,000 euro ($2.25 million)cheque, having never gone further than the quarter-finals of a grand slam before.
“I have nothing to lose. I will keep this in my mind always. I will try to hit very relaxed,” the 22-year-old told reporters after beating Germany’s Andrea Petkovic in the semis.
“I know that it will be very tough to manage the emotions, but I will try my best at that moment.”
Sharapova has four grand slam titles, including the 2012 French crown, and has been number one in the world, yet she missed the second half of last season with a shoulder injury and has been pushed to three sets in each of her last three matches in Paris.
“I’m very proud, because I worked hard to get myself injury free, and I had to work through some tough losses in the beginning of the season that I didn’t want to accept,” the 27-year-old told reporters after beating up-and coming-Canadian Eugenie Bouchard in the last four.
“I worked through them, I worked hard, and I’m in this position giving myself a chance.”
Of course, saying she has a chance is just modesty.
Having shaken off her own description of herself as a “cow on ice” unable to master the balance and timing needed to slide for points on the red dirt, the Russian has an 18-1 win-loss record on the surface this year.
She has long shown her fighting spirit ahead of what may be a battle of guts against guile with Halep. The last time she lost in three sets on the slow surface was in the third round of the French Open in 2010 against Justine Henin.
She is 3-0 up in the head-to-head over the Romanian, including recovering from a woeful start last month to overwhelm rising talent Halep 1-6 6-2 6-3 in the Madrid Open final and claim her 31st career title.
But Halep, who will rise to number three in the world when the new rankings are released on Monday, has proven over the rounds in Paris that she can adapt to the challenges with an array of shots, not just her prowling baseline style.
She has already spoken about having several match plans to get this far. She may well need them if she is to emulate her adviser and compatriot Virginia Ruzici who won the title in 1978.
“I don’t know how I have to play to beat Maria,” Halep said. “But I have to take that revenge. I will fight for this one.”