Consummate entertainer looking for an encore

Schiavone will be hoping to defend her French Open crown

She may lack the front-cover glamour of her rivals but her wily game, as she demonstrated last year by winning the French Open, is one of the most watchable in the women’s game.

On Monday the fiesty Italian will walk out on to the red clay of Roland Garros with two overriding ambitions; to defend her title and to entertain.

“It will be beautiful and very emotional,” the 30-year-old Schiavone, who surprised the tennis world by defeating Australian Sam Stosur to become the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam title, said.

“I’ve tried not to think about it too much as I’m focusing on preparing my defence but I love entertaining the public and, of course, I’m going to France to try to win.”

The Milanese’s battling qualities and variety of shot found an appreciative audience last year in Paris.

Seeded 17th going into the tournament, she grew in confidence before producing a sensational display to out-fox the more powerful Stosur, celebrating her memorable victory by kneeling down on the court and kissing the red clay.

“After the pain comes the pleasure,” she said. “There are moments I still dream about like the point in the tiebreak when there was a long rally, an exchange of forehands and I finished the point off with a stop volley to bring up 6-2.”

“I remember that and lifting the trophy, of course, and celebrating with my friends and family.”

In a fluctuating year since her Paris conquest she has continued to woo the crowds.
At the US Open, where she lost to Venus Williams in the quarterfinals, she drew gasps after hitting a baseline winner from between her legs while standing with her back to the net.

Then she stole hearts in Melbourne after saving six match points against close friend Svetlana Kuznetsova, eventually winning 16-14 in the third set in a match that lasted four hours and 44 minutes, the longest women’s match in the Open era. In between all that she helped Italy win the Fed Cup.

“I like it when matches are tight, the public gets involved and emotions come out,” she said. “Being emotional myself, I like to bring out emotions in others. I feel things profoundly. It’s a characteristic of mine. Sometimes too much, but suffering is part of the game.”

After years of being in and around the top 20, Schiavone’s performances in the past 18 months catapulted her to fourth in the rankings -- the highest position held by an Italian woman.

She was voted the WTA’s most improved player for 2010 and her performance in Paris was voted by Italians on satellite channel Sky as the greatest sporting moment of the year.

“I’m definitely more recognised now,” said the current world number five, who had previously received scant coverage in soccer-mad Italy.

“People have come up to me in the street and thanked me for bringing them joy, which is really moving. I get a lot more interview requests now but my friends are still the same.”
Her form this year has been patchy in the runup to Roland Garros but she hopes that a return to the French capital will help her rediscover the spark.

And despite being one of the game’s oldest players, she is still striving for improvement.

“I know I can play better but I need to concentrate harder,” she said. “I need to be playing at 80-90 percent of my ability but when it’s at 30-40 per cent, it’s tough to win.

“I’ve chosen to play less tennis, avoiding smaller tournaments so I can focus on training to get back in the swing.

“I’m working on a new tennis, meaning a better serve, a different, more intelligent and more instinctive way of playing. You can always improve.”

With the Williams sisters out of the French Open and Belgian Kim Clijsters recovering from an elbow injury, ‘piccola’ Schiavone offers a refreshing alternative to the baseline sluggers who dominate the rankings. If she has timed her approach right, there could well be more green, white and red fireworks in Paris come June 5.

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