By HOWARD FENDRICH, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — When Maria Sharapova's opponent in the French Open final, Sara Errani, was 12 years old, she struck out on her own, leaving behind her family in Italy and heading off to Nick Bollettieri's famed tennis academy in Florida.
Far from her parents, and not yet able to speak English well, Errani stuck it out for about 10 months, crying nearly every day. She called home a lot.
"I knew she was determined and focused," her mother, Fulvia, said after watching Errani win her first Grand Slam semifinal, "so I knew she would figure things out."
Now 25, Errani most certainly has. She figured out she needed to go back to Europe, eventually finding a new coach and a place to train in Spain. She figured out how to overcome the limitations of a 5-foot-4½ frame in a sport filled with taller, harder hitters — such as the 6-foot-2 Sharapova, a three-time major champion who will be standing across the net Saturday at Roland Garros the title at stake.
Mostly, Errani figured out that it made no sense to worry about whether she would ever be good enough to beat the best and instead focused on always improving.
"It's not a question of believing or not believing. I don't think about that. I just think about playing. I just think about going on court and giving my all. And whatever happens, happens. I've never thought, 'I can't beat someone in the top 10.' I play and give my best, and if I don't win, I don't win," Errani explained. "But I don't think about whether I can win the title. I just think about the next match. If I win, then I think about the next one. And if I win again, then the next one. But I don't think too far ahead. That doesn't help a player. It's better to take it a step at a time."
Sharapova is a global superstar and her story is well-known: born in Sibera, moved with her father to Florida as a kid, worked with Bollettieri, too.
"I don't remember crossing paths," Sharapova said. "We have never played against each other, but I certainly know she's a dangerous player because of the way she's played here and because of the way she's performed on clay this year."
Errani's tale is far less familiar; she's not even all that famous in Italy.
Until a quarterfinal run at this year's Australian Open, Errani never had been past the third round at a Grand Slam tournament.
Until this week, she was 0-28 against players ranked in the top 10. Now she's 2-28, thanks to victories over No. 6 Sam Stosur in the semifinals, and No. 10 Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals. Those upsets followed wins over two past French Open champions, 2008's Ana Ivanovic and 2009's Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Asked to explain her surge this season, the 21st-seeded Errani pointed to her equipment: She switched to a racket with a longer handle — she's cracked repeatedly that growing longer arms wasn't an option — which adds some oomph to her strokes.
The change made such a difference that Errani was willing to pay to get out of her contract with the company that made her old racket.
"It was love at first sight," she said about the new model. "From my first practices with it, I really felt completely different. I could control the ball better. I could hit it faster. It boosted my confidence."
Errani's coach, Pablo Lozano, was asked whether he expected her to go this far when they first began working together eight years ago.
"No. No. No. Not even a year ago," he replied. "To reach the final at a tournament like this, you need to be one of the best 10 or 15 or maybe 20 players in the world."
Well, while Sharapova is assured of returning to No. 1 in the rankings by virtue of reaching her first French Open final, Errani is guaranteed to move into the top 10 for the first time.
And while Sharapova can become the 10th woman to complete a career Grand Slam, Errani has a chance to forever be known as a Grand Slam champion.
Yes, just like Mom knew all along, Errani has figured things out.
"I don't even know how to describe how I feel. I haven't had a chance to stop and really think about what I've done. But maybe it's better not to. Maybe it's better to keep going this way, not thinking about it, and just keep playing," Errani said. "I'll take the time to think about it at the end of the tournament — or at the end of my career."
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