Schiavone enjoys taste of big stage at last

By Martyn Herman

PARIS (Reuters) - After waiting so patiently for her moment in the sun, it arrived in such a hurry for Francesca Schiavone that it caught her by surprise on Thursday.

The 29-year-old Italian looked bemused for a few seconds as semi-final opponent Elena Dementieva hovered near her to shake hands after a tough first set, not realizing what was going on.

When it became clear the tearful Russian was quitting because of a calf injury after losing the first set tiebreak it dawned on Schiavone that after grafting for 12 years on the circuit she had reached her first grand slam final.

As Dementieva departed, Schiavone knelt down in the middle of Court Philippe Chatrier and kissed the red clay, the realization that she had become the first Italian woman in the modern era to reach a grand slam final.

"It was good. So good," the Milanese player told reporters when asked how the court tasted.

She will be back on it on Saturday when she faces Australia's Samantha Stosur, another player bidding to engrave her name on a grand slam singles trophy for the first time.

Schiavone said she had no idea Dementieva was struggling during a fiercely-contested first set and was sitting down after the tiebreak preparing for more long baseline rallies.

ALL OVER

Then, suddenly, it was all over.

"I was ready to take my towel and suddenly I saw her too close," said Schiavone who had never previously been past the quarter-finals in a grand slam tournament.

"And for 10 seconds, many seconds, I didn't realize. Then when she shook my hand I knew it was finished," she added. "Then my mind realized where I was."

Russian fifth seed Dementieva had been struggling with injuries throughout the tournament but stayed with Schiavone throughout the first set.

She led 2-0 in the tiebreak before Schiavone reeled off six points and converted her second set point when Dementieva hit a backhand long.

Schiavone, the 17th seed, could become the first player outside the top 10 seeds to win the women's singles at the French Open since 1933 and end Italy's wait for a grand slam champion which has been going on since Adriano Panatta won at Roland Garros in 1976.

"Now I start to feel that it is really big history," she said. "We are happy I think in Italy. They are very happy and it's time to enjoy."

(Editing by Ed Osmond)