Rome Masters: Triumph for Schiavone, disaster for Federer
In Italian fans' eyes, they are tennis aristocracy. They love Schiavone and Federer without question
Thursday afternoon, and the Rome Masters saw attendance records broken again. Centre Court at the Foro Italico was the place to be.
Those who didn’t have a seat plugged the stairwells or crowded around the electronic scoreboards to share a perfect schedule.
The appetiser to the main course was Rafael Nadal, bouncing back from a virus and a near defeat at the hands of an Italian qualifier to beat Feliciano LÃƒÂ³pez in straight sets.
The No1 seed, back to his usual clay-court standard, hammered an opponent already showing the wear and tear of his last few weeks in vivid pink strapping to his back.
Nadal gave notice of his intent with an immediate break of serve to lead 4-1 and, despite LÃƒÂ³pez rallying with a return break in the seventh game, it was a false dawn. Nadal again broke LÃƒÂ³pez to love for a 6-4 set.
With a sequence of off-forehands finished by a whipped winner down the line, Nadal broke in the second and ran to 6-2 conclusion in just an hour and a quarter.
But then came Francesca Schiavone and Roger Federer. The crowd boiled over as each in turn appeared on the Roman stage, but their unfolding stories would prove to be mirrored twins, one ending in triumph, one disaster.
Schiavone is this nation’s darling, and her angular, dark features could come from nowhere but Italy. But her appeal has moved beyond mere patriotic fervour. She wears her passion on her face, in her voice and in her tennis, and she broke down many an athletic preconception by winning the French Open -her first Major -at turned 30.
That this petite, wiry, extrovert woman still continues to improve -she is seeded at No2 in Rome -in a sport dominated by much taller and considerably younger players takes her popularity well beyond Italy’s borders: She is, in short, an inspiration.
In this particular match, she faced the long limbs, blond tresses and ultra-controlled playing style of the 6ft Daniela Hantuchova.
The Slovakian’s habits, borrowed from the Maria Sharapova school of motionless moments in the backcourt before serving, push the rules to the limit. Each preparation was never less than 30 seconds but, in play, she uses her height and long levers to explosive baseline-striking effect.
Hantuchova broke her opponent straight away and looked the runaway winner after taking the first set 6-2. But that was to underestimate Schiavone, who burst through the second set, becoming more intense and animated by the game.
She was also buoyed up by a crowd increasingly frustrated at the slow play of Hantuchova, especially when she held up Schiavone’s serve.
The Italians are passionate but fair in their support: Never once did Nadal suffer at their hands when he took out their home man. But once turned, they are unforgiving. The more line calls the Slovakian questioned, the more they whistled their disapproval.
Schiavone also played her part in the drama. She was up for the fight, rushed to a 6-2 second set and broke first in the decider. Hantuchova broke back but Schiavone, drawing on the swelling noise of her supporters, attacked all the way to a 7-5 win.
She leapt and pumped and roared her delight, a bundle of nervous energy released, and the crowd responded in kind. An arena of 12,000 people, singing in unified celebration, is one of sport’s most thrilling experiences, and it was all for the fighting spirit of Francesca.
The measure of such sporting spirit, though, is more readily measured in defeat and for that the Italians had to turn, unexpectedly, to their other tennis hero, Federer.
He played the stylish Richard Gasquet, a man who beat him at the first attempt as an 18-year-old in Monte Carlo.
The Frenchman had not repeated the feat in a further eight attempts, and had not taken a set from Federer in five years.
But anyone who saw the style of his defeat of Igor Andreev in the second round, or glanced at his renewed rise up the rankings -from 86 this time last year to his current 16 -knew this would be a test.
The Italians can’t get enough of Federer, his style and his way of playing the game, and they loved every moment of the opening set: 10 games of elegant craft, attacking play, variety and winners of every description.
Federer broke straight away but was pegged back just as quickly. It was only at 4-4 that Federer broke through again to serve for the set 6-4.
He opened the second set with the same intent, breaking to go 4-2, and the crowd settled back to soak up tennis at its most aesthetic: almost silent in its touch and crispness except for the scutter of feet on the loose grit.
But the tide suddenly turned as Federer produced more errors and Gasquet found more inspiration. Guilty in recent years of not playing with the attack and self-belief of his teenage years, Gasquet now rediscovered that confidence. The winners flew and he out-played Federer both at the net and the baseline. He broke back and went on to win a tiebreak set with ease.
The decider unfolded with a certain inevitability for Federer: He served first but this time was unable to break Gasquet. The Frenchman one again played beautifully towards a tiebreak and, again, controlled the game and won the match.
The crowd, having cheered and chanted their man throughout the final set, rose to applaud the talent of Gasquet -so often unfulfilled. They rose, too, to cheer Federer from their tournament yet again.
It’s his earliest exit from an event since Rome last year, when he lost in his opening match, and he has never won in the Eternal City.
But perhaps it is his style of losing as much as his style of winning that appeals to this nation. He dismissed poor calls against his opponent, kicked away marks from the line rather than call the umpire, conceded aces that were called long and disputed nothing called against himself.
Yet there was an increasingly subdued demeanour and an unusual absence of iron in the eyes.
Even more rare, he afterwards hinted at a lack of pleasure in the match. “It was tough, I never felt I was probably going to win the [third set] breaker,” he said. “It’s not fun to play that way.” Yet the stats showed he had won the more points in the match.
How he recovers from the setback -and from a shoulder that was evidently giving him discomfort during practice earlier this week -the French Open will reveal.
But for the moment, Rome saluted both the man who had lost with good grace and the woman who won with it: treated triumph and disaster just the same.