PARIS — When Maria Sharapova's opponent in today's 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 Bradenton.
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 Thursday 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 6-2 Sharapova, a three-time major champion who will be standing across the net today at Roland Garros with the title at stake.
Mostly, Errani focused on always improving.
"I play and give my best, and if I don't win, I don't win," she said. "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, 25, is a global superstar and her story is well-known: born in Siberia, 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, a Tampa resident, 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.
And before she sets foot on court today, Errani owns a major title: She teamed with Roberta Vinci to beat Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the women's doubles final Friday. That means Errani can become the first player to win the singles and doubles events at the French Open since Mary Pierce in 2000.
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 has 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. … It boosted my confidence."
And while Sharapova returns to No. 1 in the world rankings by virtue of reaching her first French final and can become just the 10th woman to complete a career Grand Slam with a win today, Errani is guaranteed to move into the top 10 for the first time.
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 said. "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."