Saturday, June 05, 2010

Viva Francesca!

Kiss, kiss. Bang, bang.

AP / Michel Spingler

At first glance, Samantha Stosur and Francesca Schiavone presented totally different images when they met to decide the Roland Garros women's championship today. One wore black, the other white. While one's short mop top was allowed to fly haphazardly on every groundstroke, the other's long hair was neatly tied back and trapped under a hat. One dressed in a tight, business-like tennis dress, while her opponent wore a loose, almost baggy shirt-and-skirt combination. And while one's expressive face showed every wince and exultation throughout the match, the other preferred to keep her emotions "under glass" with glasses both shielding her from the sun's glare, as well as likely assisting her in her attempt to keep in check the sort of emotional responses that so often used to prevent her from truly taking flight on the court.

Still, both were in the same proverbial tennis boat on this day, trying to find a way to navigate their way around in an environment neither had ever experienced -- a grand slam singles final. To be accurate, it was the first match-up of two first-time slam women's finalists to decide a major title since it happened six years ago on the very court the two walked onto this sunny Paris afternoon, Court Philippe Chatrier.

For all the late-career bests that Stosur has been congratulated on for achieving the last few days, Schiavone's path to this moment was even more unexpected. While the Aussie's talents have been admired for a few frustrating years, surely neither Schiavone herself nor anyone else thought the Italian would have a chance at grand slam immortality a mere eighteen days before her thirtieth birthday. Ready to enter the Top 10 for the first time at a time in her career when many of her peers have either moved on to another phase of their lives or are winding down their current one, with each progressive round in Paris, Schiavone had taken on even more of the look of woman playing to WIN. Rather than celebrate and settle for what was already her best-ever career slam result, Schiavone and everyone in her corner chose to emphasize what was STILL possible.

The backers in the Italian's cheering section, en masse, donned black shirts emblazoned with the phrase "Nothing is Impossible," and their presence served as a suitable backdrop for a player who has always been at her best when playing for her country in Fed Cup, with a gang of ardent supporters in the stands living and breathing with every point. It was quite the savvy bit of art direction for this only-in-the-movies moment.

But Schiavone's preparation didn't end there.

While Stosur's power point presentation had been enough to, at times, overwhelm and ultimately defeat three straight former or current world #1's -- Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic -- to become the first Aussie woman to reach a slam final in thirty years and making her the heavy favorite today, Schiavone came armed with a tactical masterpiece of a gameplan. Essentially, it was a brilliant bit of "misdirection." Where most expected to see her force long rallies in the match, she would instead be more aggressive and seek to move forward. Countering her clay courter image, her serve was depended upon to be a bigger weapon on this day, and her volley potent. If all went well, it would give her a chance to dilute Stosur's power, taking away the effectiveness of the Aussie's forehand and serve which had consistently discombobulated the best players of her generation during this tournament.

Schiavone wasn't content with seeing if Stosur could hit through HER as she had her other six opponents. She had other ideas. As a certain Detroit rapper once asked, "Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted. One moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip?" * This was HER shot, and she wasn't going to leave any regrets behind on the terre battue.

As it turned out, everything went according to plan.

Early on, though, Stosur maintained her previous "Saminator" pattern. She held at love in her first two service games. But as the set wore on, Schiavone grabbed more and more in-game leads. She hit high-bouncing and angled backhands that kept Stosur moving and unable to impose the power game that had carried her through the previous rounds. Forced to the net more often than she had been in other matches, Stosur's volleys proved to be less than effective, in spite of her doubles background.

After a missed volley, Stosur found herself down love/40 on her serve. Schiavone surprised her by coming to the net off one of the Australian's second serves. Two points later, Stosur double-faulted on break point #3 and fell behind 5-4. Serving for the set, Schiavone quickly fell behind love/30 after a missed drop shot and a long backhand, but she employed Stosur's bread-and-butter tactics by getting back into the game via a big serve, forehand winner and unreturnable serve to get to her first of two set points. A Stosur error would hand Schiavone the set at 6-4, an opening stanza highlighted by the Italian's surprising aggression (she was 5-for-5 on net approaches) and service pop (she had more aces than the Aussie and didn't face a break point).

In the 2nd set, Schiavone got fired up after what she felt was a bad line call. She briefly seemed to lose her concentration, and Stosur took advantage. She got her first break point chance in the fourth game, and broke for a 3-1 lead. Stosur held to go up 4-1, but Schiavone finally rebounded and went up triple break point on her serve two games later. Stosur missed a short forehand shot on break point #2, and the set was back on serve.

Stosur's game had not collapsed on this day by any means, but she was not fully the same player she'd been in Paris prior to the final, either. Much of the reason was Schiavone. Except for the moments following her questioning of the line call, the Italian never wavered from her gameplan, and seemingly refused to let the pressure of the moment get to her. Mabye she never felt it after such an unexpected run? Whereas Stosur is best rewarded when she keeps her emotions under control, rarely ever even reacting too much when she wins important points, Schiavone's occasional fist pumps, twirls and after-point half-skips to the baseline prove to be ideal illustrations of how visible emotion can serve as life-affirming fuel for another player's game.

In this particular contest, it also effectively served to foreshadow the match's conclusion.

In the set's deciding tie-break, Stosur took a 1-0 lead. But Schiavone managed a mini-break for 3-2 when a bad Stosur running drop shot was easily put away for a winner by the Italian. Playing the breaker with a line of sweaty hair indiscriminately matted to her forehead, Schiavone got the best of her controlled and everything-in-its-place opponent more and more with each point. A volley winner made gave her a 4-2 lead. She jumped into the air. A forehand winner made it 5-2, and a low backhand volley gave her a match point at 6-2. With Schiavone's momentum seemingly unstoppable, Stosur framed a forehand off the court and it was over.

With a three-set final still absent at Roland Garros since 2001, Schiavone won 6-4/7-6(2).

She becomes the first-ever Italian women's slam champion, and the oldest first-time slam champ in the Open era. When it was over, Schiavone collapsed onto her back on the court, then quickly rolled over and gave the red clay a long smooch. Best. First. Date. Ever. So what if it came in her 39th slam, the second-longest wait before lifting a major trophy in women's tennis history. When she hopped up to shake Stosur's hand at the net, her white shirt was covered in red. On this day, winning a grand slam didn't have to be pretty... even when the new champ's game turned out to be far more beautiful than anyone anticipated.

Over the years, climbing into the stands in celebration of winning a slam title has almost became a rote, forced and unnecessary procedure since Pat Cash impetuously inaugurated the trend at Wimbledon back in 1987. But that wasn't the case with Schiavone's trip to the seats. After climbing over the railing and wading through the stands to get to her cheering section (she was ultimately dragged into it, really), she received a group hug of epic proportions in one of the most heartwarming scenes following any slam in recent memory. Ah, those life-loving Italians.

But the Schiavone scene didn't end there. In the trophy ceremony, she continued to let her joy flag fly.

Singing along with the Italian national anthem (the music was suprisingly monotonous, so I assume the words have great meaning), she flashed the huge smile that once again threatened to steal the world. A few feet away, Stosur, now sans glasses, looked down and ahead as she tried very hard to not allow her obvious-in-her-naked-eyes deep emotions of disappointment to consume her. A few moments later, while addressing the crowd, Schiavone turned to the Aussie and told her to not feel too sad, saying, "You are young. You can do it." Even after substituting her opponent's dream with her own, Schiavone was still able to make her (finally) flash a smile. Stosur seemed to be thankful for the moment of relief... even if in the back of her mind, she might have been thinking that she's only three years younger than the "old" Italian.

AP / Michel Euler

In between hugging and lovingly kissing the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen as if the occasion was the reuniting of herself with a long lost child she never knew she had, Schiavone still managed to grab the microphone one last time to thank trophy presenter Mary Pierce (it's the tenth anniversary of her RG title), telling her how much she loved her and was glad that she was there. The Frenchwoman seemed truly touched by the unexpected gratitude.

Sometimes, you can almost viscerally sense the moment when a player becomes something more in everyone's mind's eye from that day forward and forever. Anyone who watched Jana Novotna cry on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent could never be an uninterested bystander the rest of her career. Even more than her heroic play today, it was Schiavone's oh-so-thankful, oh-so-joyful, oh-so-life-affirming post-match moments that served as the moment for the Italian and anyone who was watching her. Nasty comments, intense rivalries and in-your-face outbursts often garner the most headlines in tennis, but it's the small, more intimate moments like this that make a player go from a familar name to a person that you can't help but want to see succeed. Needless to say, it was a nice change.

Two weeks ago, you would have been thought demented to say it: "Francesca Schiavone is the champion of Roland Garros." Now, you would be called a crazy genius. Wonders never cease.

Oh, I get the feeling there's going to be a hot time in the old city tonight. And the next day. And maybe the one after that, too.


#17 Francesca Schiavone/ITA def. #7 Samantha Stosur/AUS 6-4/7-6(2)

#5 Robin Soderling/SWE vs. #2 Rafael Nadal/ESP

#1 Williams/Williams (USA/USA) def. #12 Peschke/Srebotnik (CZE/SLO) 6-2/6-3

#2 Nestor/Zimonjic (CAN/SRB) def. #3 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND) 7-5/6-2

#6 Srebotnik/Zimonjic (SLO/SRB) def. Shvedova/Knowle (KAZ/AUT) 4-6/7-6/11-9

Elina Svitolina/UKR vs. Ons Jabeur/TUN

Agustin Velotti/ARG vs. Andrea Collarini/USA

#5 Babos/Stephens (HUN/USA) def. Arruabarrena-Vecino/Torro-Flor (ESP/ESP) 6-2/6-3

#7 Beretta/Quiroz (PER/ECU) def. Arguello/Velotti (ARG/ARG) 6-3/6-2

2001 Jennifer Capriati/USA def. Belgian Barbie/BEL
2002 Serena Williams/USA def. Venus Williams/USA
2003 Justine Henin-Hardenne/BEL def. Belgian Barbie/BEL
2004 Anastasia Myskina/RUS def. Elena Dementieva/RUS
2005 Justine Henin-Hardenne/BEL def. Mary Pierce/FRA
2006 Justine Henin-Hardenne/BEL def. Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
2007 Justine Henin/BEL def. Ana Ivanovic/SRB
2008 Ana Ivanovic/SRB def. Dinara Safina/RUS
2009 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS def. Dinara Safina/RUS
2010 Francesca Schiavone/ITA def. Samantha Stosur/AUS

2001 Kaia Kanepi/EST def. Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
2002 Angelique Widjaja/INA def. Ashley Harkleroad/USA
2003 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/GER def. Vera Dushevina/RUS
2004 Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL def. Madalina Gojnea/ROU
2005 Agnes Szavay/HUN def. Ioana-Raluca Olaru/ROU
2006 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS
2007 Alize Cornet/FRA def.Mariana Duque-Marino/COL
2008 Simona Halep/ROU def. Elena Bogdan/ROU
2009 Kristina Mladenovic/FRA def. Daria Gavrilova/RUS
2010 Ons Jabeur/TUN vs. Elina Svitolina/UKR

45...Jana Novotna, CZE ('98 Wimbledon)
31...Amelie Mauresmo, FRA ('06 Australian)
29...Jennifer Capriati, USA ('01 Australian)
28...Kerry Melville Reid, AUS ('77 Australian)
26...Lindsay Davenport, USA ('98 U.S.)

=Open Era=
29y,9m - Jana Novotna, CZE ('98 Wimbledon)
29y,5m - Kerry Melville Reid, AUS ('77 Australian)
26 - Amelie Mauresmo, FRA ('06 Australian)

26...Serena Williams [12/12/2]
21...Venus Williams [7/12/2]
11...Virginia Ruano Pascual [0/10/1]
9...Cara Black [0/5/4]
9...Lisa Raymond [0/5/4]
7...Justine Henin [7/0/0]
6...Rennae Stubbs [0/4/2]
5...Liezel Huber [0/4/2]

2...Belgian Barbie, BEL
2...Elena Dementieva, RUS
2...Maria Sharapova, RUS
2...Venus Williams, USA

JANUARY (pre-AO/AO): Belgian Barbie, BEL & Serena Williams, USA
FEBRUARY: Venus Williams, USA
MARCH: Jelena Jankovic, SRB
APRIL: Samantha Stosur, AUS
MAY (pre-RG): Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Venus Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Samantha Stosur/AUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Francesca Schiavone/ITA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Kurumi Nara/JPN d. Monica Niculescu/ROU 4-6/7-6/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd: #6 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS d. Andrea Petkovic/GER 4-6/7-5/6-4
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd: #19 Nadia Petrova/RUS d. #15 Aravane Rezai/FRA 6-7/6-4/10-8
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): Final - #17 Francesca Schiavone/ITA d. #7 Samantha Stosur 6-4/7-6
FIRST WIN: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK (1st Rd. - def. Ekaterina Ivanova/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #10 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (1st Rd. - lost to Dulko/ARG)
UPSET QUEENS: The Australians
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Chanelle Scheepers/RSA (4th Rd.)
IT GIRL: Ons Jabeur/TUN (jr.)
CRASH & BURN: #9 Dinara Safina/RUS, 2008-09 Runner-Up (1st Rd. - lost to Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #7 Samantha Stosur/AUS (QF - down MP to Serena Williams/USA)
LAST PASTRY STANDING: Marion Bartoli/FRA & Aravane Rezai/FRA (3rd Rd.)
DOUBLES STAR Katarina Srebotnik/SLO

* - from "Lose Yourself," by Eminem

All for now. More tomorrow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

She used to be the player that had not win a singles title. I was surprised when she won a title at that time. That's what I can recall. She did not face any grand slam champion/former no.1 and made the final.

I managed to watch the tie-break. Oddly, it was entertaining to see her play; that self-encouragement after winning every point, jumping at times etc.

Also glad that it was the most competitive final in recent RG women's singles finals.

Congratulations Francesca!

Sat Jun 05, 09:31:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

this is a lady who played her heart out! Pretty sure she played beyond herself to achieve this great moments. And everything aligned for her at the right time. Played fiercely and fearlessly as the underdog. Came through a relative easier draw, without spotlight shown elsewhere. A beautiful executed game and as she said 'just tried to play tennis and tried to enjoy it' this is truly fitting to say that fran lived in the moment.

Sun Jun 06, 12:15:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, she really changed the first line of her career bio (officially, and in the eyes of everyone who saw the match) with this one, didn't she?

Sun Jun 06, 08:10:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

in hindsight, i wonder if dementieva was well and healthy, would she have a chance this year. given that the first set went to tiebreak with her leg seriously injured, i'd say the chance was there. mmm...if it is not meant to be, not meant to be.

one other thing i learned from fran is that if the emotion on court is played out right, it is understatedly powerful. so many times we thought it is better to stay cool and business like, never to show emotions to keep things on track, and here is fran who literally jumps and dances on every winner. talking about positive vibes...

so todd, i am curious about sam now, do you think she is at the verge of real breakthrough and becoming one of the champion's players, or one of those 'so close and yet far' top players?

Tue Jun 08, 03:03:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I'd sure be great to see Stosur continue to progress. Wimbledon has always seemed to be a good place for her to succeed, what with her big serve and forehand, but she hasn't been able to do anything there to this point. So much with her is about her mindset and belief. A few weeks ago she was writing words on her wrist tape to keep her focused, and her business-like approach seems perfectly designed to help her contain herself and keep to the task at hand. Her coach has gotten a lot of praise, and it would seem to be well-earned.

You've been able to track her growing confidence over the past year as she's learned how to close out matches and not buckle under the moment. Even though she lost in Paris, she still played fairly well against Schiavone (even if not as well as she had while taking out Henin, Serena and JJ). Hopefully, she'll use RG as a good experience that will only strengthen her resolve, and not allow the loss to be something which plants a seed of doubt in her mind.

She's a fun player to watch, and her game would seem to point to even more and bigger success. But what goes on between the ears can undo that (look at AnaIvo). I think what comes next depends on how she responds in the next month or two. Remember, Ivanovic's bad reaction after WINNING in Paris bubbled up immediately at Wimbledon a month later. Another early exit at SW19 would NOT be a good sign.

Hopefully, that she's experiencing all this at 26, rather than 20, will be a very good thing. She's better prepared to make it last.

Tue Jun 08, 03:29:00 PM EDT  

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