Running, Swinging, Hitting, Screaming

Friday, December 16, 2011 /by

“Hope they’ve got the wheelchair ready,” one of the commentators on Australia’s Channel 7 says when Francesca Schiavone finally puts the last ball past Svetlana Kuznetsova and ends their fourth-round marathon in Melbourne. As John Isner and Nicolas Mahut had the previous year at Wimbledon, these two players punched each other into oblivion. In the latter stages, they staggered around the ring until Schiavone finally delivered the knockout at 15-14 in the third set, after 4 hours and 44 minutes of play. By that point, she had served for the match twice, while Kuznetsova had squandered six match points. This wasn’t your everyday fourth-round match, and it clocks in at No. 6 on the season.

You have two viewing options above. There’s 30 minutes of quick-moving and often brilliant highlights of all three sets, marred only by the announcer’s incessant breathing into the microphone. Below that is a 11-minute clip of the final two games, which gives you an idea of just how drained everyone involved was by that stage. It remains debatable whether all of the Slams would be better off with final-set tiebreakers, and Schiavone and Kuznetsova might secretly have wished there had been one in place on this day. But the marathons are always memorable.

*****

—These videos remind me of how how fresh things seem in Oz in January each year. It’s a new season, the weather is warm again, the players are starting over with a blank late. That seemed to be the case for Kuznetsova in particular. She talked at the beginning of this tournament about how fresh she felt, and it showed the round before when she beat Justine Henin in the Belgian champ's final match. Losing this epic to her friend Schiavone, after blowing those six match points, didn’t seem to help. Kuznetsova went on to have a bummer of a season.

—Looking at the highlight reel, what strikes me most is how much variety you get from Schiavone. She wins points with drop shots, by serving and volleying, with flat backhand return winners up the line. It’s amazing how much a one-handed backhand changes a player’s game, how many more options he or she has with it. Does it produce a fundamentally more attractive style, or does it just look so good because that style is the exception rather than the rule now, the same way that a vintage car on the street automatically looks cool, whatever the make?

—Schiavone utters her first grunt at 3-2 in the first. Kuznetsova starts to blurt at 4-5. As with her game, Schiavone brings nice variety to her noise-making. She can go “Ah-hee!” on one shot and “Ah-ha!” on the next.  At 14-all here, she even speeds up her grunt to go with her volley, the sonic equivalent of shortening her swing.

—The Italian proves again that she’s among the wiliest competitors on either tour. In the last game, she can’t get much pace on her serve, and she can’t last in rallies, but she directs the ball to the right places and doesn’t try for too much. She knows, at this point, that she doesn’t need to put the ball on the line to get it past a bleary Kuznetsova.

—I was in and out of Hisense Arena during this one; there was plenty of time to watch from multiple locations. The energy during the latter stages of the third isn’t quite conveyed in either of the clips above, so I’ll finish by returning to what I wrote that day:

As the games went on, we began to think about Isner-Mahut. The difference was that neither of these women were going to hit 100 aces—though Kuznetsova did hit 69 winners versus 68 errors. That meant they had to scrap for everything, which made the tennis itself more freewheeling and entertaining. And draining. Both women were punch drunk, but kept getting off the mat to drill one more winner and dig themselves out of one more seemingly hopeless predicament.

Some long WTA matches end in a sea of errors and service breaks—“women’s drama,” Kuznetsova calls it. This one had its miscues and chokes, but it also had its glorious saves and comebacks. Courage and frailty were on equal display. That’s why we’ll sit and watch a tennis match for 4 hours and 44 minutes.

Francesca Schiavone's coach, Corrado Barrazzutti, was known as the Little Soldier when he played. It was partly an insult directed at his plodding style. Schiavone could take that nickname from him, but it would be no insult. Asked afterward if she was going to get some sleep tonight, Schiavone smiled and shook her head. She didn’t know what she was going to do, or exactly where she was. Only one thing came to mind: “Drink,” she finally said. Here's hoping there's a little water with that wine.

*****

Have a good weekend. I'll be back next week to count down the Top 5.

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