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Like so many journeys, Jamie Loeb's road to Roland Garros began in upstate New York. The Bronxville-born, Ossining-raised high school and college champion (for the University of North Carolina) played her first professional tournament in the unsung paradise that is Buffalo. Just 16 in the summer of 2011, Loeb qualified for the $10,000 ITF-level clay event and won her first two matches, before falling to fellow collegiate star Danielle Collins.
But that wouldn't be the last time Loeb made the scenic drive along the 290 to Sheridan Drive, no. She heard The Nickel City's siren song the following summer, returned to the bucolic suburb of Williamsville, and won the tournament in singles and doubles. Clay, like Buffalo itself, is a fit for anyone who embraces its natural grit.
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It's a mantra that Loeb's opponent on Thursday, Francesca Schiavone, knows better than most. The 37-year-old Italian captured the French Open, along with the hearts of the tennis world, eight years ago with a tactical tour de force against the heavily favored Sam Stosur. Schiavone's grunt and slice were suited for the slow surface, and her one-handed backhand and on-the-sleeve emotions played to the Parisian crowd.
But Schiavone's cathartic achievement didn't earn her a lifetime pass into the main draw at Roland Garros. Ranked No. 265 in singles, this is one of Schiavone's final appearances in Paris, and if she needs to win her way into the main event, so be it. She began her qualifying quest with a three-set win over 23rd seed Carol Zhao.
As you might expect, Schiavone and Loeb have never played one another, but based on their career arcs, you have to give the edge to the 22-year-old, 162nd-ranked American, who won her opener in straight sets. But while the players can't call back to a prior encounter in preparation for this match, they can recall their successes on the surface. Schiavone has yet to win another major; Loeb has yet to win a clay-court tournament higher than the $10,000 ITF level.
Buffalo and Paris may seem like strange bedfellows, but in this respect, they go together like a hungry rottweiler and a bowl of custard.
This Week on Tennis Channel Plus
ROLAND GARROS QUALIFYING (5/21-5/25)
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*Matches subject to change