Francesca Schiavone turned Roland Garros into a little corner of her beloved Milan on Saturday when the feisty Italian grasped the biggest moment of her career with both hands to win the French Open.
Cheered on by fans wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Forza Francesca” and “Schiavo Nothing is Impossible” the 29-year-old produced the performance of her life to cap a fairytale fortnight in the French capital and become the first Italian woman to win a grand slam singles title.
From the first point to the last when opponent Samantha Stosur misfired a backhand into the crowd, the tenacious Schiavone hustled and bustled around a sun-baked Court Chatrier, clenching her fists and gesticulating, relishing the big stage.
Mixing up her game cleverly she took on Stosur’s big first serve, taking it way above her head and often nullified her opponent’s power with net-skimming backhand slices and stealthy ventures to the net.
When she needed to, she defended her side of the court with the ferocity of an alley cat, fending off everything Stosur could throw her way. All said and done, 17th seed Schiavone deservedly prevailed 6-4 7-6 in one hour 38 minutes.
After beating Russia’s Elena Dementieva on Thursday to become the first Italian woman to reach a grand slam final, she knelt down and kissed the court, promising something even more memorable if she won the title.
She was as good as her word. After Stosur mishit a backhand into the crown on matchpoint, Schiavone collapsed on to the court, kissed the red clay again and then clambered into the stands where she was engulfed in a seething mass of Italian joy.
“I haven’t prepared anything because when I prepare things they never happen,” an emotional Schiavone told the crowd after returning to court, her white shirt stained with red dust, to collect the Suzanne Lenglen Trophy from former French Open champion Mary Pierce.
“But I felt amazing today, I felt like a champion.”
After parading around with the trophy she spoke to Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano on the phone before finally leaving the stage where she was mobbed by Italian journalists desperately clamouring over a rare sporting heroine from a country obsessed with football.
It was always going to be a day of firsts with both players contesting their maiden grand slam final — only the fifth time that had happened in a women’s final in the Open era.
Stosur, who had beaten two former and current world number one Serena Williams on her way to the final was attempting to become the first Australian woman to win a singles grand slam since Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980.
Her mum and dad and brothers had made a last-minute dash to be courtside but it was not be her day.
“She just had her day,” the 26-year-old Stosur, who reached the semi-final last year, told reporters.
“She went for it and everything came off. You know, it takes guts to do that, and she did it.”
After 12 years as a pro and a paltry three low-key titles to show for all the sweat and graft, Schiavone bristled with intent on Saturday, at times playing like a woman possessed.
Pre-match favourite Stosur won her first two service games to love but Schiavone hung on and by the ninth game had the bit between her teeth.
Stosur fell 0-40 down on serve and although she saved two break points, the second with a netcord, the Australian double-faulted to hand Schiavone the chance to serve for the opening set which she did despite trailing 0-30.
Schiavone lost her cool at 1-1 in the second set, remonstrating with a line judge when a Stosur forehand landed near the baseline. Fired-up, she then wasted two break points before Stosur surged into a 4-1 lead.
But Schiavone would not be denied. With Adriano Panatta, the last Italian to win a grand slam, here in 1976, looking on, she broke back and forced the set into a tiebreak.
At 2-2 a third set still looked possible but a scintillating burst of four points put Schiavone on the brink of victory. Almost trembling with excitement, Schiavone took some deep breaths and took her chance.
Sceptics said it would be the final that nobody remembered but everybody who witnessed the outpouring of joy from Schiavone will not forget it in a hurry.
(Editing by Alison Wildey
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