French Open final preview: Serena Williams vs Lucie Safarova

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Lucie Safarova (r) is taking on world No1 Serena Williams (l).

Serena Williams spent Friday recovering at home from a bad case of flu instead of practicing for the French Open final, while her opponent Lucie Safarova was fighting on court for over two hours in 35-degree heat en route to a three-set win with Bethanie Mattek-Sands to reach the doubles title match.

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Hardly the perfect preparation for a grand slam final for either one of them but Safarova, according to Mattek-Sands, is armed with “one of the best attitudes on tour” and has the “tools to beat Williams” in what will be the Czech’s first career major final appearance on Saturday.

Williams, targeting a 20th slam trophy, struggled through a dramatic three-set victory over Timea Bacsinszky in the semi-finals, where the American world No1 appeared very ill and on the verge of collapsing. But she fought back from a set down for a fourth time this fortnight to reach a 24th career grand slam final.

“She is super sick. She had fever and was coughing the whole night. She was empty but she made it,” her coach Patrick Mouratoglou told the New York Times after the match. “She showed once again that she is the strongest player mentally in history.”

Williams says she collapsed after her semi-final, visited the tournament doctor and has been resting ever since. The 33-year-old was due to have her pre-final press conference but did not show up on-site and instead said in a statement: “At this point I just want to get better – it’s hard to think about the match or winning another grand slam title right now.

“I think I have some kind of flu which makes it tough so it’s just a matter of resting and keeping hydrated – there’s not much else I can do.”

Meanwhile, a happy but probably exhausted Safarova was seen at the media centre attending to some TV duties. The 28-year-old, who will break into the top-10 for the first time when the rankings come out on Monday, is the first player since Sara Errani in 2012 to make the finals in both singles and doubles at the same edition of Roland Garros. 

The last woman to pull off the French singles and doubles sweep was Mary Pierce back in 2000 and the last female to do it at any major was Williams at Wimbledon in 2012. 

Safarova, who is has been a professional player for over a decade, had her biggest slam breakthrough at Wimbledon last year when she made the semi-finals. 

In Melbourne last February, she won the Australian Open doubles crown with Mattek-Sands then picked up the Premier title in Doha a few weeks later, beating Victoria Azarenka in the final. 

The Czech lefty, aided by coach Rob Steckley, admits that it’s been a long road to her first major final.

“It’s my 12th year on tour and to reach this finally, makes me appreciate it much more, I think,” said Safarova, whose powerful forehands and lefty serve have taken down former French Open champions Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic so far this tournament. 

“I think a huge step was last year, reaching semi-finals at Wimbledon and the fourth round here. I think I have been working well on my game with my coach and showing more consistency. Also I am a little more patient and am going for the right shots at the right moments. So I’m happy with my game.

“I haven’t reached my dream yet, and that’s what you kind of work for and follow. I have been very close many times, but it didn’t happen. So I just keep working hard and waiting for those moments to come.”

Mattek-Sands will be sitting in Safarova’s box in the final, even though the American admits she is a good friend of Williams. 

“Lucie is really confident in her game right now,” says Mattek-Sands, who added that she felt bad they couldn’t wrap up their doubles match in straights so Safarova would have more time to recover. “When I watch her play, she’s almost loving those tight games.

“We joke because she’s won all those tiebreakers this year and she loves tiebreaks and these long deuce games. I can see her getting more comfortable in that situation.

“She probably has one of the best attitudes on tour.

“It’s a tough one. Playing a lot, being sick, finals, you have one more match and I think they’re both going to leave it all on the court on Saturday. Serena has been there before so she knows what to expect but at the same time Lucie has got nothing to lose so she can go out there and rip it. I think it will be a great match. 

“I think Lucie can beat Serena, I think she has the tools to do it. Whether she will or not, I’m not going to say yes or no, but I think she can.”

Williams leads Safarova 8-0 head-to-head, with three of those meetings going to three sets.

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