Schiavone makes history at French Open

Amid scenes of near delirium amongst her supporters, Francesca Schiavone became the first Italian woman ever to win a Grand Slam title when she upset the Australian favorite Sam Stosur 6-4, 7-6 (2) here at Roland Garros on a day of dynamic tennis and high emotion.

After falling flat on her back and then kissing the clay, a disheveled Schiavone embraced her opponent before climbing precariously into the stands to disappear under a welter of back-slapping arms. Wet with tears and wreathed in smiles, her coaches, trainers and friends hugged and kissed this amazing 29-year-old who has worked long and hard for her day in the sun. And, oh, how she embraced it.

Recalling the deciding tiebreak, Schiavone said, “I was feeling much more energy, more and more and more. I couldn’t stop it. I really felt that it was my moment. I took it. I didn’t care about nothing. I wanted to take that point and play my tennis. It was the moment.”

Talk about the force being with you. I have rarely seen a newcomer to this level of Grand Slam tennis so revved, focused and driven. Stosur is strong but it would have taken a 10-ton truck to stop this woman becoming champion.

Amazingly, these two played in the first round here last year and Stosur won. Lessons learned, Schiavone threw caution to the wind and launched into an aggressive game plan that swept her to a memorable victory.

"I never change my mind, it was all so clear for me,” she said after bouncing into her press conference and throwing her arms in the air when the cup was placed in front of her.

Corrado Barazzutti, the Italian Fed Cup captain and former top 10 player who acts as her unofficial coach, said, “I told her you have to be brave. You have to take risks. You have to go out there and do something special. This is not a little tournament. This is Roland Garros. Something extraordinary is needed.”

Schiavone, who had only won three WTA titles in her entire career, listened. Settling her nerves by throwing herself into the action, this wiry athlete looked the livelier of the two from the start. Stosur, though, was never in trouble on her serve until the Italian pounced at 4-4, scoring with a volley to take herself to 0-40 and then watching Stosur double fault her way out of the game.

Undaunted by going 0-30 down when serving for the set, Schiavone even shrugged off the loss of a set point when Stosur came up with a couple of magnificent, deep forehands in a hard-hitting rally. But, on the second, the pressure told and Stosur netted a backhand to lose it.

To her credit, Stosur — who had made her break through by reaching the semifinal so unexpectedly here last year — kept serving well and went after the Italian defenses with her big forehand. Her reward was a break in the fourth game and when she held to love, Stosur found herself leading 4-1.

Despite shouts of “Aussie, Aussie” from sections of the crowd, their player could not hold on to her advantage. The pressure Schiavone was piling on her was just too great. A forehand service return winner set up the break back and the decisive point in the tiebreak came at 2-2. An awkward sliced service return dropped short; Stosur raced in to play a drop shot off it, but Schiavone was there to make the pass.

But there were many noteworthy statistics attached to this encounter. For the first time in the Open era, both finalists were appearing in a Grand Slam final for the first time. And Schiavone, at 29 years and 11 months, became the second oldest woman in the Open era to win her first Grand Slam since 1968. Ann Jones of Britain had been 30 years and eight months when she won Wimbledon in 1969. And both players’ improvement over the past year was clearly demonstrated by their upwardly mobile rankings. In the intervening months Stosur’s ranking had moved from No. 32 to 7 while Schiavone had risen from 50 to 17.

Stosur took her defeat like a true blue Aussie: “Right now it’s not easy and I really wish I had won,” she said. “I still don’t think I played bad but she went for it and everything came off. You know, it takes guts to do that and she did it. You just got to say, ‘Too good’. I think she’s a very nice person. She’s a great competitor on and off the court.”

Somehow Schiavone managed to remain coherent amidst a slightly chaotic conference. Referring to her supporters who crowded the players lounge after the match, she said, “When I saw them I say ‘What are you doing here? Oh, we took a car, they said. We came 10 hours’. I said, ‘You’re crazy’. They are all my friends from when I was two, three years old.”

Schiavone looked serious for a moment when asked if she had always believed she could win Roland Garros.

“I always dream, yes. I always believe in myself. Not just about the tournament but just in myself. This means that everybody has the chance to be who you really want to be and to do everything in your life. This is what’s happened to me.”

She had needed that belief to set such ambitious tactics and follow them to the letter. She volleyed so well because every sortie to the net, save for the last, was set up by a near-perfect approach shot. It was an exhilarating performance and it has given women’s tennis a lift.

On a hot, sunny day in Paris a group of Italians had dared to arrive wearing T-shirts which read, “Schiavone: Nothing is Impossible.”

Now we know.