Thursday, May 28, 2015

RG.5- The Celebrated Jumping Francesca of Milan, Italy *

Whenever she finally calls it a career -- and maybe that'll be longer from now than would be the case with most almost-35 year old tennis stars -- Francesca Schiavone should construct a tent, build a fire, pop open a bottle of wine, toast some marshmallows and then slip into a comfy sleeping bag and simply take up residence on the grounds of Roland Garros.

Really, why would she ever want to leave? And why would anyone want her to?

Age is relevant only when someone wishes to believe it to be so, even if the calendar says otherwise. Still, as she came to Paris to play for the fifteenth consecutive year, in her fifty-ninth straight major (just three off the WTA record), it was apparent that Schiavone's opportunities to light up the Roland Garros sky were dwindling. And fast.

"When your friends begin to flatter you on how young you look, it's a sure sign you're getting old."
- Mark Twain

While Schiavone might be one of the most fit players on tour (if not THE fittest), the last few seasons have seen her career take a sharp turn away from the (seemingly, at the time) late-career peak of 4-5 years ago when she reached back-to-back finals in Paris, winning her sole grand slam title in 2010 to become the oldest first-time slam champion ever at just a shade under thirty years of age. She arrived in France last week having lost eight straight slam singles matches, a streak of futility that even included a 1st Round exit in Paris a year ago that seemed to quite possibly be a tennis career's version of "the canary in the coal mine." The end seemed near. The Italian ended 2014 ranked #82, her first finish outside the Top 50 in fourteen years. She failed to reach a final for just the second time (w/ 2008) in the last decade, and every early loss (she's had eight one-and-done tournament results in '15, and lost to players outside the Top 100 seven times) made one wonder just how many more her pride would allow her to endure.

But Paris changed her career. It gave her a legacy. And over the last few days, it's given Schiavone new life.

And who better to help bring it out of her -- and share the moment -- than Svetlana Kuznetsova? The 29-year old '09 RG champion, a recent Madrid finalist, has also had her most consistent slam success in Paris, and the last time they met -- when Schiavone was a spry pup of 30 -- they combined to devastating effect when it come to the grand slam record books. At the 2011 Australian Open, Schiavone saved six match points and claimed a 16-14 3rd set to finish off a 4:44 contest that is the longest slam match in the Open era. What were the odds that they could combine to produce anything close to that classic this time out?

Well, at it turned out, they were, ummm, pretty good.

In a marathon match of amazing drama and fun, Schiavone and Kuznetsova engaged in another memorable duel. It had defense, offense, drops shots, high volleys, low volleys, long scrambles, artistic slides, game-changing saves, lost leads, engaging comebacks, a saved match point, a kitchen sink and even a few ice trays thrown in just to keep things fresh. Even better than all that was the outright, visible joy with which Schiavone engaged in the battle.

Early on, it was Kuznetsova who excelled during the thrill of the chase. She saved a set point, and converted on her own fourth attempt to grab a 13-11 tie-break that ended the nearly hour-and-a-half opening set. As Schiavone fell down a break early in the 2nd, she rebounded -- as everyone sort of expected, because we're talking about Francesca in Paris... and Sveta, well, anywhere she sets down her racket bag -- to win the set 7-5 to knot the match. After 139 minutes on court, though, they were hardly finished. The first two sets were just the appetizer for a more thrilling 3rd.

Switching rolls, Kuznetsova took the early lead this time, going up 4-2 and serving for the match four times. But Schiavone broke the Russian as she served while leading 5-4, 6-5, 7-6 and 8-7 to stay alive in the city that habitually breathes new life into her energetic body, which reciprocates by providing drama the likes of which we saw on Court 1 today. Kuznetsova held a match point at 6-5, but the Italian saved it with a stunning one-handed slice backhand passing shot that she guided behind the Russian as Sveta closed in on the net to reach what she hoped would be a down-the-line shot that she could put away with a volley that would send her forward into the 3rd Round at Roland Garros for the twelfth straight year.

As the drama of the final set carried on and on, it didn't matter that ten of the final eleven games would include breaks of serve. Every point was a novel all its own, with wailing competitors unleashing shots that couldn't possibly be answered with anything remotely similar... until they were. And then the process would simply begin anew a few moments later. As it was, Kuznetsova was the one who blinked in the closing moments, but she didn't lose the match because of her inability to do anything. Schiavone won it because her abilities once again outdistanced any vague notion of time and the limitations it may place on us all.

Schiavone held serve in game #17 of the set, then reached match point during Kuznetsova's service game soon after. The Russian dumped a forehand volley into the net, ending the 1:35 deciding set to put the finishing touch on a 6-7(11)/7-5/10-8 score that favored the Italian. At 3:50, it's the third-longest women's match in Roland Garros history.

As the excitable Italian bounded around the court in celebration of her win, she still looked as fresh as she had four hours earlier. In fact, she looked like she could go another three hours on the dirt in her brightly-colored outfit and glowing yellow shoes. If she had to. Or, you know, just for the heck of it.

Another Roland Garros memory is in the books for Francesca. The magic is alive. In the grit. In the grind. And, looking at her draw (no seeded players stand between her and the QF), this might not be the last time we see the celebrating jumping Italian from Milan sparkling in her element during this tournament, either.

Paris might be the City of Light... but, for Schiavone, it's also the City of Life. And may she live there forever.

...even with all the excitement of Kuznetsova/Schiavone, it's worth noting that the match was very nearly upstaged by the upsets of a pair of Top 4 seeds, #1 Serena Williams and #4 Petra Kvitova. Playing in cool conditions that, to their detriment, slowed down the courts, both women -- with Maria Sharapova, two of the three currently reigning slam champions on the WTA tour -- fell behind early but managed to take down their mounting errors long enough to fight their way through to the 3rd Round.

Of course, we've seen these sort of outings from both in the past. Williams generally finds a way to win anyway, while Kvitova often doesn't. So far in Paris, though, the Madrid champ has escaped legit upset challenges in both of her matches. Today against Silvia Soler-Espinosa, the same old pattern developed, as the Czech took a 4-2 1st set lead and held set point at 5-4. But she failed to convert it, then let errors slip into her game and ended up dropping a 7-4 tie-break to fall behind in the match. Late in the 2nd, she held a break advantage, only to give it back to knot the set at 4-4. SSE got within six points of a straight sets victory, but Kvitova pulled off a break on her third BP of game #9 and then served out the set. She pulled away in the 3rd to win 6-7(4)/6-4/6-2.

As close as Petra looked to defeat, in some ways Williams appeared to be even closer. Well, except when you considered that she's Serena, and things could totally turn around in a few points. And that's ultimately what happened against German Anna-Lena Friedsam.

World #105 Friedsam came to Paris having a dreadful year. She was 5-12 with just one main draw WTA victory in '15 (last week in Nurnberg). Williams' last loss to a player ranked outside the Top 100, though, was her 1st Round defeat by Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros in 2012. For a few moments, it looked as if that might be the foreshadowing "Stat of the Day." But, instead, Serena ran her career record in slam 2nd Rounds to 56-2 as she avoided her second straight 2nd Round loss in Paris, having suffered her worst-ever slam loss last year against Garbine Muguruza at this very stage of the tournament (her only other 2nd Round loss came vs. Venus in Melbourne in 1998).

Williams dropped her serve in two of her first three service games of the match, and her unforced error broke her serve a third time in the 1st to gave Friedsam the chance to serve out the set. She did, winning it 7-5. After Williams got a break of serve to go up 4-2 in the 2nd, things seemed to be turning in her favor, but then her service issues continued as she immediately went down love/40 and handed her advantage back. This is where the "it's always something" tone of Williams' trips to Paris from 2003-12 looked ready to seize the day once more. But with the set on serve with Serena up 4-3, Williams held firm to win the final two games and knot the match, then broke the German in the opening game of the 3rd.

That was enough to put Serena in front for good. She won 5-7/6-3/6-3, but will likely have to clean up some of the numbers she put up today -- 52 unforced errors and eight DF -- in her next match against Vika Azarenka if she's to win the second leg of a true Grand Slam two weekends from now. Remember, Vika had Williams dead to rights just recently in the 3rd Round in Madrid, holding triple match point before crumbling in a hair of double-faults.

...speaking of Vika, the #27-seed had the "honor" -- or "misfortune," depending on your point of view -- of being the next-up match following the marathon Schiavone/Kuznetsova clash on Court 1.

After having such difficulty closing out matches coming into Paris, Azarenka has been very efficient this week. Just like in her 1st Round win over Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor, Azarenka put things away today on her first match point in a 6-2/6-3 victory over Lucie Hradecka.

...elsewhere, my preseason pick of Swarmette Andreea Mitu as one of 2015's surprise players is starting to look pretty good. First, she shined in Fed Cup play against Canada this spring, then today she pulled off an even bigger win, taking down #12 Karolina Pliskova to reach her first career slam 3rd Round. The Romanian lost the 1st set to the Czech, and Pliskova looked as if she might advance in straights after she saved nine break points over two games and then broke Mitu to take a 4-3 lead. But Mitu immediately broke back on her twelfth BP attempt of the set. Mitu had three set points at 5-4 before Pliskova held and then pushed things to a tie-break. There, Mitu evened up the match by converting on her fifth SP.

In the 3rd, Mitu opened with another break of serve, then broke the big-serving Czech in her third and fourth service games of the set, as well. Finally, on her fourth MP over the last three games (Pliskova saved two on serve), Mitu closed out the biggest win of her career with a hold to claim a 2-6/7-6(5)/6-4 victory.

...earlier, #5 Caroline Wozniacki had become the second Top 5 seed to fall in Paris, as her Roland Garros fortunes continued to come up short. The Dane lost to Julia Goerges, 6-4/7-6(4), dropping to 4-4 in their head-to-head and failing to advance beyond the 3rd Round in this event for the eighth time in nine tries. She's failed to get out of the 2nd Round in Paris the past three years. doubles, winners included Makarova/Vesnina, Mattek-Sands/Safarova, Dellacqua/Shvedova, Hsieh/Pennetta, Pliskova/Pliskova and Garcia/Srebotnik. And Caroline got to play on Court 16, so all is well there. Lisicki/Petkovic and Muguruza/Suarez-Navarro (at the hands of fellow Bailaoras, Soler-Espinosa & Torro-Flor) lost.

In Mixed, Bethanie Mattek-Sands & Mike Bryan handed Genie Bouchard (w/ Max Mirnyi) another loss, while Chan Yung-Jan (w/ Leander Paes) defeated sister Hao-Ching (w/ Marin Draganja). Martina Hingis won her 1st Round match with Paes (they're the AO champs), but Sania Mirza lost hers with Bruno Soares. Mirza/Soares were the #1 seeds here and reached the semis in Melbourne.

...LIKE FROM DAY 5: Oh, Francesca. Go ahead... do what you wish. You've earned it.

..."WHAT DOES IT SAY...?" FROM DAY 5: ...that when Schiavone and Kuznetsova play I sometimes just start to laugh at the quality of noises coming from both sides of the net? Seriously, it's like they're torturing animals out there or something. And yet I can't stop listening.

...SOMETIMES-IT-WORKS-OUT FROM DAY 5: No player has gotten more on-air material out of a loss than John McEnroe has from his squandered lead against Ivan Lendl in what turned out to be his best chance to ever win a Roland Garros title. He's now been lamenting -- and feeding off -- that defeat for thirty-one years.

...LIKE FROM DAY 5: Maria being Maria

..."OMMMMMMMMMMMMM" FROM DAY 5: Maybe Petra should just go do some yoga on a hill and have a Coke and a smile. It might bring her enlightenment. Ding!

...and, finally, the final 32 is set. While a few trends from the 1st Round have held up, some have gone by the wayside.

There are still more Germans standing than women from any other nation, including the entire Fed Cup front line (Kerber, Petkovic) and "second team" (Lisicki & Goerges), as well as a member of the NextGen (Beck). Meanwhile, while the Bannerettes had a bad 1st Round (4-13), they went undefeated in the 2nd, including straight sets wins by Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. The Czech youngsters faltered, as the more accomplished Maidens (Kvitova, Safarova) advanced, while the opposite occurred with the Romanians as only Begu and Mitu have survived. Almost the entire fabled Italian veteran class (Errani, Pennetta & Schiavone) are alive, and perhaps still smelling the celebratory vapors of that FC win over the U.S.. While only one teen (Vekic) has reached the 3rd Round, five thirtysomethings join her there.

Oh, yeah... and Tsvetana Pironkova has once again found a way to slip through the crowd. A "surprise," but also no surprise at all when you consider her now-you-see-me-now-you-don't career where she alternates between the "most dangerous player in the draw" status and "was she even in the draw?" early-round exits. In her career, the Bulgarian has exited slams in the 1st or 2nd Rounds thirty-three times, while this is just the fifth time she's reached the 3rd Round. But whenever she's gotten this far, she's put up a perfect 4-0 mark in the Final 32. Other than in a final, the 3rd Round is the only slam round in which she's never lost. She's twice lost in the Round of 16, and has put up a QF and SF result at Wimbledon.

A few awards...

* - with the Germans leading the way, I'll go with Angelique Kerber as the "Top Early-Round Player." She's allowed a total of six games through two matches... but she'll face Garbine Muguruza next. So, maybe she'll repeat her "Queen of Clay" great start/bad finish scenario?

* - today's results mean that the "Last Qualifier Standing" is a four-headed beast, with Lourdes Dominguez-Lino, Paula Kania, Sesil Karatantcheva and Teliana Pereira sharing the honor. This is the earliest the draw has been cleared of qualifiers in a slam since the 2007 Wimbledon, and the earliest in Paris since 2005.

* - Francesca Schiavone gets the "Joi de Vivre" Award, for obvious reasons, becoming just the second non-Pastry winner since I first handed it out in 2011.

Kristina Mladenovic defeated Danka Kovinic today to join Alize Cornet in the 3rd Round, keeping the face for "Last Pastry Standing" alive for at least a little while longer. Kiki didn't go through quite the late-match drama when it came to serving out this match as she did vs. Bouchard, but she WAS broken serving up 5-3 for a straights sets win. Eventually, she broke Kovinic to lock away the win. Maybe the key was sticking with the all-black outfit?

The 3rd Round will feature match-ups of former #1's & slam champs with Serena/Vika and Sharapova/Stosur (Maria won in the RG 4th Rd. in '14) facing off, and we'll also see a rematch of one of last year's quarterfinals (Petkovic/Errani) two rounds earlier.

A doubles duo (Makarova/Vesnina) will meet on the singles court, as well. Makarova leads the head-to-head 5-1, not counting a win in a junior event in Russia in 2002. Vesnina's only win in the series came in a challenger event in 2004.

I miss my @sunny.cali ????

A photo posted by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

5...GER (Beck, Goerges, Kerber, Lisicki, Petkovic)
4...USA (Falconi, Keys, Stephens, S.Williams)
3...ITA (Errani, Pennetta, Schiavone)
3...RUS (Makarova, Sharapova, Vesnina)
2...CRO (Lucic-Baroni, Vekic)
2...CZE (Kvitova, Safarova)
2...ESP (Muguruza, Suarez-Navarro)
2...FRA (Cornet, Mladenovic)
2...ROU (Begu, Mitu)
1...AUS (Stosur)
1...BEL (Van Uytvanck)
1...BLR (Azarenka)
1...BUL (Pironkova)
1...SRB (Ivanovic)
1...SUI (Bacsinszky)
1...UKR (Svitolina)

2002 (Week 1 POW) Serena Williams, USA *
2003 (Week 1 co-POW) Serena Williams, USA & Kim Clijsters, BEL
2004 (Week 1 POW) Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2005 (Week 1 POW) Kim Clijsters, BEL
2006 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2007 Justine Henin, BEL *
2008 Ana Ivanovic, SRB *
2009 Dinara Safina, RUS
2010 Venus Williams, USA
2011 Samantha Stosur, AUS
2012 Maria Sharapova, RUS *
2013 Serena Williams, USA *
2014 Simona Halep, ROU
2015 Angelique Kerber, GER
* - won title

2006 (3rd) Julia Vakulenko/UKR, Aravane Rezai/FRA
2007 (3rd) Dominika Cibulkova/SVK, Alla Kudryavtseva/RUS & Ioana-Raluca Olaru/ROU
2008 (QF) Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP
2009 (3rd) Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR, Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
2010 (4th) Chanelle Scheepers/RSA
2011 (3rd) Chan Yung-Jan/TPE, Nuria Llagostera-Vives/ESP
2012 (QF) Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
2013 (3rd) Paula Ormaechea/ARG, Dinah Pfizenmaier/GER
2014 (4th) Kiki Bertens/NED
2015 (2nd) Lourdes Dominguez-Lino/ESP, Paula Kania/POL, Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL, Teliana Pereira/BRA

2011 Virginie Razzano, FRA
2012 Virginie Razzano, FRA
2013 Serena Williams, USA
2014 Kristina Mladenovic, FRA
2015 Francesca Schiavone, ITA

TOP QUALIFIER: Veronica Cepede Royg/PAR
TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): #11 Angelique Kerber/GER
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Wang Yafan/CHN d. #15 Richel Hogenkamp/NED 2-6/7-6(7)/8-6 (saved 4 MP)
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - Francesca Schiavone/ITA d. #xx Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS 6-7(11)/7-5/10-8 (3:49; third-longest RG match)
FIRST VICTORY: (Q) Teliana Pereira/BRA (def. WC Ferro/FRA)
FIRST SEED OUT: #31 Caroline Garcia/FRA (lost 1st Rd. to Vekic/CRO)
REVELATION LADIES: The New Australians
NATION OF POOR SOULS: United States (most players in draw w/ 17, but tied for 4th w/ just 4 1st Round winners)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Lourdes Dominguez-Lino/ESP, Paula Kania/POL, Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL, Teliana Pereira/BRA (2nd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Virginie Razzano/FRA & Amandine Hesse/FRA (2nd Rd.)
LAST PASTRY STANDING: In 3rd Rd.: Cornet, Mladenovic
IT "??": xx
COMEBACK PLAYER: Nominees: Azarenka/BLR, Lucic-Baroni/CRO, Stosur/AUS, Stephens/USA
CRASH & BURN: #2 Simona Halep/ROU (lost 2r to Lucic-Baroni/CRO)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #19 Elina Svitolina/UKR (2nd Rd. vs. Putintseva - down 6-1/3-0, then 4-1 in 3rd; won 9-7 deciding set)
JOIE DE VIVRE: Francesca Schiavone/ITA
KIMIKO DATE-KRUMM VETERAN CUP (KDK CUP): Nominees: Schiavone/ITA (34; ended 8-match slam losing streak; def. Kuznetsova 10-8 3rd set in 2nd Rd.), Date-Krumm/Schiavone (78-year old doubles duo), S.Williams/USA

* - a nod to Mark Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867)

...born Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910). American author, lecturer and humorist. Writer of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Twain's writing and large personality made him a public figure and, ultimately, an American icon. A renowned traveler, Twain entertained fans around the world with his opinionated wit.

All for Day 5. More tomorrow.


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