Throwing the Sink, Tasting the Clay

Wednesday, June 02, 2010 /by

101322070 by Pete Bodo

It was better than spaghetti carbonara, Francesca Schiavone said, and it was better than spaghetti a la vongole - and those are the two favorite dishes of this 29-year old lady from Milan. Schiavone might have made a comparison with crunchy granola, which is not very high on her list of favorite dishes, but on the other hand, it is the grub that the gritty top-dressing on the Chatrier Court at Roland Garros must taste most like.

Schiavone made the comparisons yesterday because as soon as she secured match point against Caroline Wozniacki, the late No. 3 seed at Roland Garros, Schiavone did a belly flop onto the clay and kissed it. And it wasn't just a formal peck; it was more like tonsil-hockey and it left Schiavone with clay in her mouth. She savored every granular bit of it.

Schiavone has punched through to the first Grand Slam semifinal of her career, and in high style. Employing a versatile game (the topspin was the oregano) and a crafty grasp of strategy, she kept Wozniacki off balance and on the ropes. Schiavone played exemplary veteran tennis - salty tennis - the whole way, closing as strongly as she finished.

In the first set of the surprisingly smooth if not necessarily easy 6-2, 6-3 win, she made 16 winners to Wozniacki's four, and broke her in six of the eight games the not-so-great Dane served. Schiavone's only anxious moments occurred when she relinquished a 3-1 second-set lead, enabling Wozniacki to pull level at 3-all. But Schiavone put an end to that resurgence, with authority. Wozniacki never won another game.

In short, it was an old-fashioned beatdown, after which Wozniacki could have been forgiven for asking, Where did that come from?

Well, it came from two decades of experience, leavened with a shrewd, mature grasp of what we might call, Tennis, The Game - which is something that a youngster like Wozniacki may not yet know exists as she whacks backhand and forehands, and piles up the Ws, sponsorship offers, and requests for photo shoots in these heady early days of her promising career.

In a meeting with the Italian press yesterday, Schiavone was asked how she planned to play. She admitted that if she just went out there to exchange mortar rounds from the baseline with a player of Wozniacki's caliber, she was done, cooked, worse than over-done pasta. She planned to use her variety, plenty of spin, and she even remained open to attacking despite the slowness of the clay - anything to keep Wozniacki off balance and guessing.

Ubaldo Scanagatta asked her if she would even serve-and-volley, and she measured her countryman with a glance and said she hadn't really planned on it, but - who knows? She was prepared to throw the kitchen sink, and who could blame her - a win over Wozniacki would guarantee Schiavone the highest ranking ever attained by an Italian WTA pro, No. 9. And if Nadia Petrova were amenable to losing (she did, to Elena Dementieva), Flavia Pennetta would be ranked No. 10, marking the first time ever that two Italian women appeared in the Top 10.

Well, that's a done deal now. And true to her word, Schiavone attacked the net (and hit a winning volley) on the second point of the match. She held back on the serve-and-volley until the penultimate point, but chose the right moment, slicking a slick, unplayable volley into the corner after the surprise attack.

Scanagatta, proud papa that he is, made a point to mention it to her afterward.

"Yes, I did it," she replied. "You are now my coach."

"Only if I get a percentage," he shot back.

Don't you love to see a diligent, down-to-earth, personable veteran reap the rewards of her fidelity to the game? As Wozniacki said in her painfully brief press conference:

"Well, she played well. She played with a lot of spin. She didn't make a lot of mistakes. She played aggressive. Yeah, she was playing better than me today. I was always one step behind and couldn't really dominate the way I wanted to. Yeah, that's the way it went."

For her part, Schiavone said: "Yes. If you play just in defense, it's not. . .I think you can't win against nobody. So I tried to serve good and to put pressure a lot with the forehand, and it was good."

Indeed. It was yummy.

It was a delight to sit in on Schiavone's press conference, where she was asked about warming-up with Tathiana Garbin, and whether she had chosen that partner because Garbin had lost to Wozniacki in the second round here.

"No, she said, "It was because we are big friends. I don't have nobody to hit with, and she know that. She say, No, no, I play with you. I say, Ah, you play with me just because we play on Philippe Chatrier? (players scheduled to play on Chatrier are entitled to warm-up there). She say, Yes."

This kind of honesty, openness, and relaxed humor is typical of Schiavone, and one of the reasons she's so appealing on a WTA Tour increasingly populated by players whose self-absorption, disinterest in communication, and constant fear of saying the wrong thing, the revealing thing, or even the honest thing - let the chips fall where they may - can produce nothing more than a litany of banalities. Martina Hingis, where are you?

Of course, we press pariahs are no angels. But I've noticed over the years that players who deign to put a little thought into a question and say what they really think, or feel, are rarely punished for it - unless, of course, what they say is inappropriate, outrageous, or wildly insupportable (see "H" for Hingis). So what? Isn't that how it's supposed to be?

101318709 Further, you can't help but admire Schiavone when she fields a dumb, leading, or treacly question, and it's clear that she spends some time figuring out how to reply, but in a good rather than calculated way.

For example, she was asked: Your moment of triumph of was so special. Your face was filled with joy. I know it's difficult, but can you try and talk about emotion, the role of emotion and your play, your feeling at that moment?

Her immediate response was, "Heart attack."

But after giving it some thought, she added: "I think in that moment you remember many things from when you are when you were young. Is special because is your space, is your time, is your opportunity. . .I felt alone, but with all the love around me is. . bo [Italian slang for 'I don't know']. . . It's like if I ask you, How did you feel when you married?  You say, It's not easy to explain. Is not enough?"

It's plenty.

Schiavone was asked the question nobody answers: who will win when she plays Elena Dementieva?

"Io (me)!" Everyone laughed. Growing serious, she shrugged. "Will be very interesting match. I know her. I think she know me. We grow up a little bit together. We played many tournaments together. I respect her. She's a great athlete. You know how she is, Elena. But will be good match. We are good athletes physically and mentally strong. I think who going to win?  Really the best one Thursday."

Schiavone recently abandoned London as her base of operations, returning to Italy. She had no trouble explaining why: "Eh, daddy, mommy. They say, Come back home. I say, No. They say, Yes. At the end, they won."

Now that's a good old-fashioned Italian girl, one with a taste for spaghetti carbonara, spaghetti a la vongole, and the delicious particles covering the surface of the Chatrier court at Roland Garros.

You can use this as your Crisis Center post for today. Enjoy the tennis. . .

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