French Open 2015: Schiavone and Williams rise to the age-old challenge

Francesca Schiavone and Serena Williams both reach the third round of the French Open with three-set victories

Serena Williams has set record after record when it comes to breaking the age barrier in women’s tennis.

She became the second oldest Grand Slam champion since Martina Navratilova when she won the Australian Open earlier this year, and became the oldest woman to hold the No1 ranking when she reclaimed it over two years ago—and it’s a record that continues unabated through Roland Garros for the 2002 and 2013 champion whatever the outcome this year.

But the mighty Williams is far from alone when it comes to carrying the banner for the over-30s on the French Open women’s stage.

Look at Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, also 33, and victor over the No3 ranked Simona Halep, the runner-up here last year—almost 16 years after Lucic-Baroni reached the Wimbledon semis as a teenager.

She put it thus: “I really do love the game. So as long as I can and as long as my body allows me to, I’m going to keep fighting and keep playing. It’s moments like this, like today, it’s just so amazing, full court playing against one of the best tennis players in the world and winning. It doesn’t get better than this.”

And what about Kimiko Date-Krumm, a semi-finalist at Roland Garros in 1995 and at Wimbledon in 1996. She left tennis to pursue another career soon afterwards, returning a decade later for several more years of competition, and made a semi run in the doubles at the US Open last year. Now age 44, she is in the doubles draw here at the French Open.

Her thoughts on her tennis renaissance?

“I love tennis, I love sports, I like challenge, and I like competition… when I was young I don’t like not so much practice. I don’t like weight training. But now when I come back to tennis I love practice—I think maybe too much. I like weight training also. So I’m enjoying very much. And on the tour now everything is different. It’s more easy and I enjoy talking to young players. I enjoy life with tennis, yeah!”

And what about the woman she has decided to partner in doubles? Well it is Francesca Schiavone, the oldest woman in the singles draw since Venus Williams lost her opener.

The charismatic, extrovert tiny Italian package of a woman became a first-time Grand Slam champion here at 30, and was runner-up a year later. She has a throwback game of single-handed backhand, serve-and-volley skill, slice and drop-shot touch, but is as temperamental as they come.

Now 34, Schiavone is competing in her 15th Roland Garros, and has played more consecutive Grand Slams than any other active woman. Her form, though, has plummeted of late, and since her French Open victory, she has won just two titles. This year alone, she has lost in the opening round of six of her 12 main draws, arrived with 1-4 on clay, and finds herself ranked 92.

Yet not for the first time, Schiavone produced one of the matches of the tournament so far in this, three hours and 50 minutes of passion, reversals of fortune, stunning retrieval and creative attacks.

She had been here before, against the very same opponent, another former Roland Garros champion and a veteran of the tour who turns 30 this year, the equally pugnacious No18 seed, Svetlana Kuznetsova. Fourteen times these two women had played each other, and the Russian had the upper hand with nine victories.

But they also joined forced in one of women’s tennis’s most famous matches, the longest on record, at the Australian Open in 2011. Schiavone won 16-14 in the third set after 4 hrs 44 mins.

But since then, Kuznetsova had shown a resurgence of form, reaching the final of Madrid only a month back via wins over Maria Sharapova and Ekaterina Makarova, to take herself back into the top 20.

But where to begin with this latest battle? Court 1, a circular bowl of a court, was soon like a cauldron, as these two once more went toe-to-toe through a gripping first set of seesawing scores.

Schiavone pressed hard for the break in a 12-minute ninth game, and pressed again in the 11th, but Kuznetsova held her off and it went to a tie-break, and no ordinary tie-break. The Russian served for the set at 6-4 but Schiavone made two net winners to hold, and they then alternated chances until the clock ticked to 82 minutes. Kuznetsova took two vital points in a row and the set, 6-7 (11).

It looked as though Schiavone had blown her chance when she conceded a quick break to go 2-0 but she broke back, and the arena erupted, not for the first time. A couple of love holds, and she also dug deep to save three break points and went on a three-game run to level the match, 7-5.

That would be the short set, for this match was nowhere close to done. Twice Kuznetsova took the lead, at 2-0 and 4-2, only for Schiavone to break back. Each came up with bold play, with drop-shots and winners down both wings, with kick serves and net-rushes. It was exciting and unpredictable tennis, and was inevitably moving towards another marathon of break and counter-break.

After three hours, they stood at 4-4, and neither would hold serve again until Schiavone did the honours to take a 9-8 lead. Could she break Kuznetsova once more? An outrageous backhand slice brought up her chance, and the Russian netted one more drop-shot attempt. The Italian had the win, 10-8.

The roar of approval drowned most of Roland Garros, as the Italian pocket-rocket jumped with joy, then collapsed in tears. But afterwards, she talked of the former, and living for the moment.

“When you pass tough, tough moment and you go to the court and have to fight for five hours, four hours, you say, Okay, I take it. I don’t care how many minutes of time I have to stay on the court, I care about what I do. I set the goal that I have to give everything inside the court.

“I think every match is a great history for me now. Doesn’t matter where I am. Doesn’t matter the score. Everything is a present for me now. So I’m living like this. That’s all.”

She went on, motioning with hands and face in her demonstrative way, to unfold the emotions that keep all these women—and the many over-30s men, of course—so full of the zest of competition.

“You fight, you fight, and then you are reaching the mountain, but you go back and you are again down. Then you fight, you go up. It’s tough. You are down again. And then you think about how it is going from there to here (motioning down to up). So you keep going for one meter more. You need just one meter more. When you take the step, here you feel (touching heart) yourself happy and proud and… yeah, very happy.”

And what of Williams, who was not expected to have many problems against the 105-ranked Anna-Lena Friedsam?

Well the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion was far from her best, and went down a quick break. But with the German serving for the first set, Williams broke back and it looked destined for a tie-break at 5-5, only for Friedsam to break again and take the set, 7-5.

Williams, then, would have to do this the hard way, and she toughed out some challenges at the start of the second set. She also broke early in third set, eventually closing out the match, 6-3, 6-3, but it had taken two hours.

Perhaps it was a sign that the world’s best was still troubled by the elbow injury that forced her to withdraw from Rome. After an altogether easier first match here, she admitted: “I was really happy to get through that and see how my elbow was going to do. Not 100 per cent, but I was able to serve OK.”

Today, she served nine aces but eight double faults, 39 winners and 52 unforced errors and that will have to improve against her next opponent, Victoria Azarenka. The No27 seed raced through Lucie Hradecka in an hour, 6-2, 6-3, to set up the most eagerly anticipated third-round contest of the women’s draw.

Williams was far from satisfied with her performance, but she would not permit any negativity: “I feel like one thing Venus always tells me: A win is a win, and as long as you live to survive the next day, you can always improve. I know my level is literally a 100 times better than I played today, so I think I take more solace in the fact I can play better as opposed to the fact that that’s the best I could play. Then I would be in trouble!

“I don’t have anything to lose. If I’d lost that match I still would have Wimbledon in a few weeks. I reached 18. Then I reached 19. And now I’m looking to get 20. But I feel like I’m totally capable of doing that if not here, the next two or three or four whatever Grand Slams, I still have time. [But] if I don’t get it, I don’t think I’m going to be very depressed about not reaching 20.”

It’s a mindset that allows little room for self-doubt but plenty of room for optimism, very much like that of another evergreen champion, Roger Federer, whose own watchword is: “I’m a glass half full kind of person.”

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