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Steve Flink: Schiavone rises above herself to prominence

6/5/2010 11:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

PARIS---   As she approached the 2010 French Open, Italy’s effervescent Francesca Schiavone was clearly not a viable candidate to capture the world’s premier clay court championship. She was seeded 17th at Roland Garros, and in 38 previous appearances at the majors she had done no better than reach three quarterfinals, most recently at Wimbledon in 2009. She will turn 30 on June 23, and most authorities believed she was not the kind of player who would ever have the tools or the temerity to prevail at a Grand Slam event. Schiavone was admired for her craft and strategic acumen, lauded for her enduring success, appreciated for the spirit and fortitude she has always brought to the competitive arena.

And yet, even she could not have envisioned what would happen to her across the past fortnight, a two weeks stretch on the red clay that will alter her life forever. Schiavone started her quest for the title by losing the opening set of her first round match to the Russian Regina Kulikova, recouping for a three set triumph. But thereafter, she found some impressive form on the clay, toppling No. 11 seed Li Na of China in straight sets, cutting down No. 30 seed Maria Kirilenko in the round of 16, taking apart No. 3 seed Caroline Wozniacki 6-2, 6-3 in the quarterfinals, and then winning the opening set of her semifinal with No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva in a tie-break. Dementieva retired with a calf injury, and so Schiavone had improbably made it to her first Grand Slam tournament final.

But waiting for her today was none other than the tournament’s star female performer, the woman who had beaten both Justine Henin and Serena Williams, the commanding player who had ousted No. 4 seed Jelena Jankovic. Samantha Stosur--- seeded seventh, playing the best tennis of her career, growing more confident day by day--- was a solid favorite to beat Schiavone. How else could it be? Schiavone had defeated Stosur in their first ever career head to head meeting five years ago, but since then Stosur had recorded four consecutive straight set victories over her rival, taking two of those matches on clay. A year ago in the first round at Roland Garros--- en route to her first semifinal showing at a major—Stosur had halted Schiavone 6-4, 6-2.

Lost in that sea of information was simply this: Schiavone was primed for this final round occasion. She was an artist in search of a canvas, a player who sensed an opportunity she will almost surely never get again, a woman on a mission. Many players shrink when they find themselves in a prestigious final for the first time. They can’t handle the pressure. They are self conscious and stricken with nerves. They are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. But Schiavone was not in that frame of mind at all. She was ready to meet her fate. She was not going to waste her chance to make an astounding piece of history. She was determined to exploit her wealth of experience as someone who has been a professional since 1998, and she was absolutely determined to give herself every chance to succeed.

In the end, Schiavone realized her dream with one of the most creative performances I have ever seen in the women’s game at a time of consequence. Schiavone toppled a confounded Stosur 6-4, 7-6 (2) with a masterful display of tactical ingenuity. She disrupted Stosur with the agility of her mind and the purposefulness of her play. Schiavone has long been admired for her heavy topspin off both sides, which she hits with a severity not many players can equal. But to a degree I had never witnessed before, Schiavone displayed an imagination and verve that were often astonishing. Schiavone got up to the net 15 times and won all but one of those points, and the chief reason why she did that well was because she moved forward unexpectedly. Schiavone made delayed approach shots frequently, keeping Stosur completely off guard, setting up easy volleys in the process. Moreover, she used the drop shot judiciously, and exploited the wide serve in the deuce court to open up the court and attack Stosur’s weaker backhand wing.

All in all, Schiavone was at the top of her tactical game, while Stosur was rigid and inflexible, taken largely out of her rhythm by an opponent who refused to let her get grooved off the forehand side. The fact remains that the final was well played and hard fought, and Stosur did not bow out easily. Both women were holding easily in the early stages. Stosur opened forcefully with a love game on her serve; Schiavone answered by winning her serve at 30. Both women held at love the next two games, and then Stosur fell behind 0-30 in the fifth game. The 26-year-old Australian handled that situation admirably. A backhand down the line winner and an ace lifted her back to 30-30, and after being caught at deuce she closed out that game with a confident service winner and a forehand inside-in winner.

Schiavone survived a deuce game on her serve to reach 3-3. On the penultimate point of that game, Schiavone dug out a terrific low forehand volley crosscourt, coaxing Stosur into a passing shot error. Yet Stosur remained composed and confident. In the seventh game, serving at 40-30, she forged ahead 4-3 by using the kick serve up high to the Schiavone backhand to pull her opponent out of position and set up a forehand winner into an open court. Schiavone was still serving from behind at 3-4, and she was down 15-30. But the spunky Italian released an ace down the T for 30-30, and then came forward for a backhand volley winner. It was 40-30. Perhaps shaken by those bold moves from her adversary, Stosur timidly chipped a backhand return into the net, and Schiavone was back to 4-4.

The next game was pivotal. Stosur was down 0-40 but saved two break points. Serving at 30-40, she double faulted into the net. At a crucial juncture of the match, Stosur had revealed her insecurity, and Schiavone knew had to serve out the set. Yet before she knew it, the Italian was down 0-30 after netting a backhand drop shot and slicing a backhand long. But Schiavone did not surrender her poise. She produced an excellent sliced serve wide that seemed to skid off the line. Stosur wanted to take that return early but she barely made contact with the ball. At 15-30, Schiavone went wide to the backhand with her serve to open up the court for a forehand winner. Schiavone soon advanced to her first set point at 40-30 but Stosur stepped into a forehand and laced it with topspin down the line for a clean winner.

Now the artist in Schiavone surfaced again. She swung her first serve wide to the backhand, took the short return from Stosur and approached deep to the backhand, and put away a backhand volley into the empty court. At set point for the second time, Schiavone was fortunate. Stosur sliced a backhand down the line and was off the mark. Set to Schiavone.

Stosur was not that dismayed. At 1-1 in the second set, she rallied gamely from 15-40 on her serve, saving the break points with a pair of forehand winners. After holding on in that critical game, Stosur broke for 3-1, raising the trajectory of her backhand down the line by adding another layer of topspin. The depth and height of that shot were too much for Schiavone, who netted an awkward forehand. Stosur was getting close to where she wanted to be, ahead 3-1, taking control of the tempo. In advancing to 4-1, Stosur played one of her finest games of the match, holding at love, connecting with three out of four first serves, keeping Schiavone at bay with penetrating forehands.

A third set seemed almost inevitable, but it was not to be. With Schiavone serving at 1-4, Stosur played a loose game. The Italian held at 15 as Stosur gave too much away. Now serving at 4-2, Stosur was not prepared for the elevated level of play exhibited by Schiavone. The Italian opened that game with a topspin backhand inside-out return winner, and followed with an inside-out forehand winner off a hanging net cord shot from an unlucky Stosur. Stosur made an unforced error off the backhand to make it 0-40, saved one break point with an ace, but was then broken at 15 when she bungled a forehand approach shot wide.

Buoyed by that development, Schiavone made her way back to 4-4. Stosur held on with vigor, but Schiavone was magnificent when she served to save the set at 4-5. She served an ace wide, then followed with another ace down the T. Schiavone stymied Stosur with a body serve to the backhand for 40-0 and held at love with a scintillating forehand winner. It was 5-5. Both players held easily to make it to the tie-break, and in that sequence Schiavone was almost letter perfect. Stosur out rallied Schiavone to take the first point on serve, but she would win only one more point the rest of the way.

Serving at 1-2, Stosur implemented her favorite play one last time, using the kick serve in the Ad court to set up a forehand winner crosscourt into the clear. At 2-2, Schiavone accidentally chipped a return short with slice, and Stosur could not get up to that ball in time to do enough with it. Schiavone easily passed her off the backhand. Now Schiavone realized she was closing in on the chance of a lifetime. She made it to 4-2 with a delayed approach, hitting a superb inside-out forehand, waiting until she knew Stosur would hit a defensive shot, then swiftly moving forward for a forehand volley winner. At 4-2, Schiavone took a short return from Stosur and rolled her forehand into a wide open space.

Stosur sensed that her chances were almost gone. Once more, as if by design, Schiavone made a surprise trip up to the net, and her touch was impeccable on a golden backhand drop volley. An exuberant Schiavone jumped for joy as she won that point for a 6-2 lead. On the next point, Stosur miss-hit a backhand out of court and against all odds Francesca Schiavone was the 2010 French Open champion. She could not have deserved her victory more. Stosur had the gumption to beat the four time French Open champion Henin and world No. 1 Serena Williams back to back, holding back Henin in the crunch when the contest was locked at 4-4 in the final set, saving a match point against Serena. Then she had crushed Jankovic comprehensively. But she could not solve the riddle of Schiavone, who not only outplayed her but outthought her all across the absorbing contest.

This was a landmark triumph for Schiavone. She becomes the first Italian woman in the history of tennis to win a Grand Slam championship, and the first Italian player since Adriano Panatta was victorious at Roland Garros in 1976 to succeed at a major. She is also the oldest woman in the Open Era to claim a first major title. Ann Jones was older when she won Wimbledon in 1969, but the British left-hander had already won at Roland Garros in 1966. Schiavone is only the fourth woman ranked outside the top ten in the world to rule on the red clay in Paris. In her entire professional career, Schiavone had only collected three relatively insignificant titles on the Sony Ericsson WTA tour, and now she finds herself in the territory of the elite as the victor at the third biggest tournament in tennis.

The view here is that Francesca Schiavone will never win a Grand Slam event again, and might not even come close. But that doesn’t really matter. She did not win this tournament by accident. She took it with pride, perspicacity, grit and a remarkable tennis mind. She captured the French Open in style. She garnered a title no one ever believed she could, and that was no mean feat.

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