Schiavone Hits High Notes In Operatic Triumph For Ages

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60646061PARIS — They have about as much a connection as Sarah Palin and Dalmatians.

They have have as much a sporting rivalry as Cal Poly volleyball and the Boston Celtics and they’re only about 12,000 miles apart.  In other words, except for a recent agreement to build a fancy telescope together, Italy and Australia don’t have a whole heck of a lot in common, well,  except for this.  They’re both down to earth and both love sports.

An Italian win in the World Cup semis will ignite intoxicated celebrations from the back alleys of Naples to New York’s Little Italy. And the Aussies adore sports, any sport involving a ball, a hill or wave.

Plus, both sea-loving lands do laid back good: real good and real different. With the Aussies it’s cool: g’day mate, sorry mate — a  let-it-be, time for a walkabout  mindset. With Italians it laid back too, but with passion and operatic exaggeration. Endless animated discussions in a sing-song language with staccato limp-wristed gestures.

So coming into the French Open final we knew we would see two players — Sam Stosur and Francesca Schiavone — with continental differences.

For starters it’s all in their name. Sam Stosur — a simple, brief, what you see is what you get, three syllable sporty alliteration. Francesca Schiavone, a lyrical seven-syllable adventure with it’s own musicality.

Yes,  Italy gave us  inspired operas, breathtaking Venetian canals and some dandy art by those gifted fellows Leonardo and Michelangelo. Still, the great Italian nation could never attain one thing: a women’s Grand Slam champion. And Schiavone, with her spindly body and elastic bronze expression was hardly a likely flag carrier. Yes, she was a notable Fed Cup performer. But how many titles had she won? Just three modest ones. She’s far too inconsistent and far too old — 29. She’s seeded far too low, 17, and was now climbing in far too rarified air.

She had never gotten beyond a Grand Slam quarterfinal before and was now up against last year’s semifinalist, the hottest clay court player of the season who had just swept past three former No. 1’s. Boosters even claimed Stosur might become the Rafa Nadal of woman’s tennis (stretch) and her big serve and flat angled shots that opened the court had drawn comparisons with Robin Soderling.

Once a bit fragile, the Charleston champion,  was ripped, all business and riding a not-so slow upward curve. She was highly favored in the final. Her fans called out Aussie, Aussie, Aussie — oi, oi oi as tennis sages were quietly mumbling  “oy vey, oy vey” — we hope this isn’t just another one-sided Grand Slam final blowout.

It could have been. After all, Stosur had just beaten Justine Henin and Serena  and  crushed Jelena  Jankovic.

Once on court, Stosur flashed her power, dominating on her first two service games. But Schiavone, took the hit and stayed with her. The two veterans (the first duo who collectively were both into their first Slam finals since Anastasia Myskina beat Elena Dementieva here six years ago) were  two vets who were eager to prove that these days on the WTA tour 29 is the new 17.

As the two traded punches, it was clear this was not the same dominant Stosur who had just dismissed those three former No. 1’s. Her serve didn’t dictate. Her decisions were spotty. A simple overhead flew long. She dumped drop shots into the net. Her volleys lacked bite. “She was a little jittery,” conceded her coach, Dave Taylor. “She …  just never played free tennis that she needs to play.”

In contrast, Schiavone called on the many notes of her far-ranging scale, which yes includes more slices than your local deli. Far from the boring, one-dimensional big babe drones who have defined women’s tennis with their smash-mouth baseline games, the Italian is inventive, ever-changing. At four-all in the first set, thanks in large part to a brave approach and fierce backhand volley, she got her first break point. With the pressure on Stosur double faulted, gifting a critical break. Stosur’s coach admitted that there might have been a little panic. “Francesca went out there to win the match and that’s fantastic,” said Taylor. “Maybe it was easier for her being such a big underdog.” Schiavone’s Fed Cup coach, Corrado Barazzutti, told a different tale. The night before he simply informed his student, “If you want to go down in history, you have to take a risk and try hard, never give up.”

Schiavone didn’t.

She called on every fiber of her Milanese guts and refused to be overpowered by Stosur’s kick serve or power forehands. Slicing, dicing and artfully crafting points she approached the net with abandon and a “been there, done that” confidence. Usually she just had to put away standard volleys or shovel the ball to an open courts. In any case, with purpose, she served out the second set.

But now, conventional wisdom had it, that Stosur would do as she had done against Henin. After losing the first set she would power back to gain control. And thanks to four groundie errors from Schiavone, Stosur scored her single break of the match and streaked to a 4-1 lead. The emotional Italian, known for her road rage, now would only give fierce resolve.

While Taylor admitted that with her lead Sam, “Got passive then and will regret that moment.”

Determined to deter the Aussie’s counter-offensive, Francesca attacked Sam’s serve and broke back to even the second set which  inevitably came down to an astounding tie-break.

Stosur won the first point, than Schiavone, in full voice, offered an Italian aria of beauty and power. Raising her level — sensing this her destiny — she out-played and out-thought her just slightly rattled foe who looked to her box with befuddled confusion.

Later Schiavone was asked “You said that the most intelligent will wind the final, so you are?” The Italian smiled, “Yes, I am.”

Even more, Schiavone said, “I was feeling much more energy… more and more and more.  I couldn’t stop it.  I felt that one was my moment.  I took it…I didn’t care about nothing.  It was the moment.

Short backhands, clutch forehand volleys – she attacked. Stosur couldn’t breathe as the slight but mighty Schiavne ran like a deer, hit with power and a brave, yet subtle,  touch that helped her win four of five points in a row until Stosur framed a backhand serve to give the Italian the French 6-4, 7-6 (2).

After Francesca beat Henin, Ian Eagle said she had spent so much emotion, she would have to wait to exhale. Now she did. Never one to hold back, she  kick-started the best celebratory happening since Brazilian Guga Kuerten‘s samba-fest 10 years ago.

Dropping to her beloved clay, she again kissed the dirt, offered that wondrous smile we have grown to adore.

“To kiss the ground,” she explained, “is to thanks this clay, this beautiful tournament and this arena …to give me this opportunity and all the emotion that I am living.”

Soon she scrambled to a cadre of fans in black “nothing is impossible” T-Shirts for a tearful “hug-a-thon” for the ages that wouldn’t stop. “They are all my family or the person that work with me and/or my friends,” reported Francesca. “When I saw them now, I say, what are you doing here?  Oh, we took a car.  We came 10 hours.  I said, You’re crazy.  You didn’t pay us the flight, so we had to take the car.  Yes, was fantastic.”

On a cell phone she spoke with the President of Italy and then reflected on how she became the most unlikely woman’s Slam winner in decades.

“I thought that you can arrive here just if you really work hard and if you really have something special inside.  Can be passion, can be heart … I always dream, yes.  I always believe…Not about the trophy or tournament, but just on myself I think was the key for everything…This means that everybody have the chance to be who really you want to be, and to do everything in your life…[this is] over the limits…When I call my daddy, he say to me, I remember you that you always dream this one.  Every morning that you wake up, you work to do something like this..”

As those two nations of this final – Italy and Australia – they are indeed far away. But, it turns out they may have more in common than we thought – an earthy reality.

While many a tennis coach might fall into a funk when their pupil falls flat, Taylor was incredible.  Speaking of Francesca, he all but gushed, “I’ve never seen anyone play with such composure at the net. She fully deserved to win, she’s such a deserving champion. [It’s great] when you can be the coach of the opposition and still be happy for the champion, because I really feel she deserves to win.”

As for the Italian, she just confided, “I want to go home to mommy and daddy.  This is my goal for the moment.”

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