Frankie, You’re My Hero

Francesca Schiavone at 2010 Pilot Pen News Conference ©Tennis Panorama News

The sun has set on another Australian Open and most fans will remember Kim Clijsters and Novak Djokovic for taking  home the singles championship hardware for 2011. For me, the heart of this Melbourne fortnight belonged to a 5′ 5 ½” Italian woman.

She stands as a lilliputian amongst the behemoths of the WTA tour. While having a one-handed backhand is supposed to be a liability, she uses it as a paint brush by lovingly  stroking the ball with spin to manufacture winning points. In a world of ball bashers, she’s slicing and dicing her way to victories. At 30 years of age, she’s supposed to be old and washed up as a professional tennis player. For her,  life in the tennis spotlight began at almost 30, when she outsmarted her younger colleagues to win the 2010 French Open.  Meet Italy’s Francesca Schiavone.

We all remember her emotional moments during her run to the 2010 French Open title  from kissing the clay and rolling around in it after each win. Many have said that Samantha Stosur choked away her chances in the Roland Garros final, but frankly ( or should I say Frankie) Schiavone just plainly outwitted her with her head and heart.

How can we forget her leadership by inspiration with her Fed Cup play as Italy captured titles  in 2006, 2009 and 2010.

The latest chapter to add to her legend – her epic fourth round  win against Russian Svetlana  Kuznetsova 6-4, 1-6, 16-14. Schiavone saved six match points  in a contest which lasted a major tournament record-setting four hours and  44 minutes on day seven of the Australian Open.

In the third set of the match she  attacked the ball, yet caressed  it with both spin and guile.  Commenting on her monumental win,  Schiavone said, “I think players feel the pressure because I keep going to change everything on the court, speed and angle….so they feel that I can do very well, and the people now start to know that I can play really good on hardcourt. I feel the same, that I will be tough for everyone.”

For a set and-a-half  in her quarterfinal clash,  Francesca  Schiavone gave  No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki  a first hand lesson  in the art of slice and point construction.  Not bad for a woman ten years older than her opponent who played a four hour and 44 minute match on less than 48 hours rest. The marathon match finally did catch up to Schiavone as her mental focus was lowered to the level of her physical exhaustion, so the clock finally struck Midnight.  She may have been defeated by the Dane  3-6, 6-3, 6-3, but she won many a  fan’s admiration.

I’ve had the opportunity to cover some of her media conferences,  most notably this past year’s Pilot Pen tournament (now called the New Haven Open at Yale) and one of the many things I love about Schiavone is that she’s not afraid to be herself, whether it’s on the court or at a post- match news conference.  While many of her colleagues will give cookie cutter responses to media questions, she’s  honest and carefree.

Who else would reveal in an interview that she keeps her Roland Garros trophy in a closet, admits to giving herself a peptalk in her head during matches and does not have a coach and is not looking for one.

For her efforts this past fortnight in Australia, she‘s moved her up to No. 4 in the world in the latest WTA rankings. Her fight and personality  have brought her a newly found fan favorite status.  Let’s see what magic Schiavone brings us the rest of the year. We will all be watching.

(Karen Pestaina is the woman behind Tennis Panorama News. She freelances  for various media outlets and has worked for many a broadcast news entity. She witnessed her first live tennis match as a young child at Forest Hills when Guillermo Vilas upset Jimmy Connors to win the 1977 US Open. This branded her as a Vilas fan for life.)