Finalists seek redemption in Paris

PARIS -- All-Russian Grand Slam finals are no longer novel, but getting inside the minds of the two countrywomen who will face one another for the French Open title could provide more than enough grist for a psychological thriller.

The match between world No. 1 Dinara Safina and seventh seed Svetlana Kuznetsova will be won above the neck. Call it "War and Peace of Mind." Both women will be trying to defy their recent histories on the biggest stages, which are littered with squandered opportunities and epic meltdowns.

The rangy, powerful and famously temperamental Safina is seeking her maiden Slam championship to put a notary's seal on her ranking, even as she insists she deserves it. "I think since I became No. 1, I'm playing finals and winning the titles, so how much more proof I need to give the people that I think I deserve that spot?'' she said after Thursday's 6-3, 6-3 semifinal win over Dominika Cibulkova, which was somewhat less airtight than the score indicates.

It arguably is just as important that Safina plays well, win or lose, in order to redeem dreadful collapses in her previous two Slam finals: In Paris a year ago against Ana Ivanovic and in Australia in January, when she barely showed up against Serena Williams. Safina hopes this time will be the charm.

"Well, it's, how you say, third is the victory?'' she said. "I hope this time I will do it.''

Safina gave herself several multilingual floggings during the course of Thursday's match and walked off the court looking less than enthralled with her performance, her smile tight, her eyes flat pools of brown. She called her effort "good enough,'' then fell back on the athlete's standard silver-lining bromide: "Obviously it gives you much more confidence when you know that you still can do much better, even without playing your best.''

Kuznetsova won the 2004 U.S. Open but hasn't been able to rise to the occasion in two subsequent matches with Slam titles on the line, including a routine defeat at the hands of Justine Henin in the 2006 French Open final. After being routed 6-1, 6-3 by Henin in the 2007 U.S. Open final, Kuznetsova actually apologized to the crowd for failing to mount stiffer resistance.

But the sturdily built St. Petersburg native, who overcame Australia's Samantha Stosur 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 in Thursday's second match, can take heart in the fact that she is the only woman to beat Safina on clay this season. That WTA event final in Stuttgart, Germany, is the only match Safina has lost in the six weeks since she became No. 1.

Safina leads their career series 8-5 going back to the 2000 season, but they're 4-4 on clay; Safina beat Kuznetsova in the Rome final this season and won easily in the French Open semifinals in 2008.

Their relationship far pre-dates their professional careers. Born less than a year apart, the two 23-year-olds (Kuznetsova will turn 24 later this month) played each other as juniors even as a wave of Russian tennis talent began to swamp the men's and women's tours.

Back then, Safina's mother was a prestigious coach in Moscow, her brother Marat Safin was on his way to becoming the top-ranked ATP player and Safina already was considered one of the next big things. Kuznetsova showed up to their first match wearing a rock n' roll T-shirt and carrying a bottle of Coke, and recalled at some later date asking Safina for her sibling's autograph.

Kuznetsova also has an athletic pedigree -- her father coached some of Russia's top cyclists, including her mother, and her brother was an Olympic cycling silver medalist.

If Safina and Kuznetsova had been born into the British royal family rather than two of Russia's elite athletic clans, the taller, moodier Safina would be Diana and Kuznetsova, one of the more popular players in the locker room, would be the extroverted Fergie. Both are among the more engaging, expressive, self-deprecating women in the WTA's top echelon, and they have far more in common than they are different.

Kuznetsova said difficult political and economic circumstances in Russia molded her generation of players.

"We didn't have possibilities to play,'' she said. "Not sponsors, nothing. I remember, myself, hitting in the [bubble] on clay without heating, you know. It was zero degrees and you had to practice, because you had no other chance, because you cannot afford it. Sometimes you travel and you share bedroom with people you don't even know. These things make you work harder, you know. You go to the juniors tournaments, you go [to] America, and they have unbelievable Nike deals. You beat them maybe easy, and you still don't have anything.''

But great background stories don't always make for great tennis. The inaugural All-Russian Grand Slam final, Anastasia Myskina's 6-1, 6-2 demolition of Elena Dementieva at Roland Garros in 2004, produced a quick surrender rather than a valiant battle. Dementieva fell to Kuznetsova 6-3, 7-5 in the U.S. Open final later that year.

Then again, nationality hasn't much mattered in the women's French Open final lately -- the last three-setter was the 2001 marathon won by Jennifer Capriati over Kim Clijsters. Perhaps this time, Safina and Kuznetsova, so muscular in some ways, so fragile in others, will be able to write a more riveting chapter for the sport.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.