They come from worlds of their own, driven by passion, ingenuity and a competitive spirit. If you want to know what's missing in American women's tennis, be sure to catch Thursday's French Open semifinal between Francesca Schiavone and Marion Bartoli -- and take full notice of two women who dare to be different.
Schiavone is Italian, but she has been adopted by fans around the world who have been thoroughly enraptured by her on-court presence. Bartoli is French, but only in her native tongue. Long disassociated from the country -- and its tennis federation -- she now returns in a great rush of brilliance, gaining favor at every turn.
The post-match scenes were priceless at Roland Garros during Tuesday's quarterfinals. After polishing off a hard-fought 1-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Schiavone gave her fallen opponent a kiss on each cheek, then turned and dramatically thrust her arms skyward. As her racket fell onto the clay, a thunderous roar cascaded down upon the defending tournament champion. Francesca! She turns 31 this month, and is in the midst of a soul-stirring career revival.
Bartoli could hardly contain herself after an impressive 7-6 (4), 6-4 win over Svetlana Kuznetsova. Long ago, she and her father rebelled against French tennis officials and crafted a career in private, rich in bizarre training methods and unorthodox shotmaking. Walter Bartoli always felt his young daughter had a special talent, and when she shocked the tennis world by reaching the 2008 Wimbledon final (losing to Venus Williams), it came to light that the family had long since departed the French village of her upbringing, near Le Puy, to find peace in Switzerland.
"My parents decided to leave and I was so happy," said Bartoli, who now lives in Geneva and hasn't been part of France's Federation Cup team for seven years.
"I couldn't stand it any more. I needed to go. It was too small and the people there weren't nice toward me. They were so jealous."
As far as the patrons of Roland Garros are concerned, Bartoli gets a little more French each day. It will be interesting to follow the mood swings on Thursday, for Schiavone is an artist of the highest order and the French often consider themselves the final word on such matters. While young American and Russian players train monotonously away, identically pounding away from the baseline from dawn to dusk, Schiavone combines an old-school game -- full of touch, variety and elegant volleys -- with boundless energy and an absolute romance with the game.
"I love tennis when I can express myself," she says. "I am transparent. You can understand how I feel."
She didn't feel so great in falling behind 6-1, 4-1 to Pavlyuchenkova, the 19-year-old Russian who seems to be launching a serious run to the top. Serving at 4-5 and 30-all in the third set, Schiavone was two points away from a discouraging loss. Right then, she unleashed a wicked ace -- only her second of the match. She held that game, got herself into a third set, and prevailed on the strength of wondrous athleticism.
In the second game of the third set, Pavlyuchenkova flicked a forehand drop shot, superbly delivered with a sharp cross-court angle. On the dead run, Schiavone reached to her shoe tops to crack a curling forehand winner down the line. It wasn't long before Pavlyuchenkova 's body language betrayed a loss of belief, and the match was virtually lost (5-1) before she rallied to make it respectable.
At deuce in the final game, Schiavone crafted a Louvre-worthy masterpiece: A delicate, beautifully disguised backhand drop-shot winner from the baseline, setting up her third and final match point. As she danced about the court, one got the feeling that young Pavlyuchenkova can wait. There are important, very adult matters at hand.
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Never dismiss or fast-forward your way through a match if Mary Carillo and Martina Navratilova are handling the courtside analysis. You might miss something.
In the second set of Sunday's fourth-round match between Pavlyuchenkova and Vera Zvonareva, Carillo (on Tennis Channel) asked Navratilova if she'd still play serve-and-volley tennis if she were playing today.
"I would still come to the net, absolutely" she said. "I'd have to stay back on some first serves, but I'd still be trying to set up points that way. I wouldn't be chipping and charging. I'd be running around my backhand more, to come in behind a hard ball."
Carillo: "We saw Schiavone do it last year. That's how she won the French."
Navratilova: "You have to have soft hands. She has 'em, and I had 'em. It's doable. You just need a little more strategy going into it."
Carillo: "You're one of the greatest players of all time, OK? And there's all these talented girls, and no one plays like you, except for Schiavone, who's about to turn 31. I don't know, I got issues with this. I got issues with the utter lack of variety."
Navratilova: "Women and men should be coming to the net more. But that's the next wave of player, I think."
"I can't wait for it," said Carillo. "Because I'm getting a little fed-up with this other stuff."
Navratilova went on to blame two factors for the trend away from net-rushing: the new-technology rackets, allowing for stronger, more accurate passing shots, and the courts themselves. "The courts are too slow," she said. "This (clay) court in some ways plays faster than the hardcourts in the States. They've slowed the game down too much. You'll see more variety if you have faster balls (like the ones being used at the French this year) and faster surfaces."
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-- Another good point by Navratilova: Lining up what should have been an easy overhead in the first set, Pavlyuchenkova decided to take the ball out of the air and shanked it horribly. "Let it bounce!" Martina said, angrily. Amen, especially if you're setting up around the service line. What's the point of taking it in the air, especially if there's any kind of wind? Just to show off?
-- Refreshingly, Carillo gave some insight on the frustration experienced by NBC in this tournament. As the Zvonareva match dragged on, she said it was "great for NBC" because it might allow the network to show some of Novak Djokovic's match against Richard Gasquet. No such luck. Djokovic polished off his victory exactly one minute before NBC came on the air. At least the Schiavone-Jelena Jankovic match was still in progress (third set), so it wasn't a total loss for the NBC crew.
-- What a discouraging exit for Giselo Dulko, who was thrilled to learn last week that the wife of her brother (and coach) had given birth to twin boys in Argentina. Dulko admitted it was "very emotional" to have been in Paris during such a life-changing event, but after she upset Samantha Stosur in the third round, she held up a sign that read, in Spanish, "It was worth it." Then came the fourth round against Bartoli, and a crestfallen Dulko had to retire in the second set with a leg injury.
-- After that horrendous 6-1, 6-3 loss to Daniela Hantuchova, Caroline Wozniacki took some heat for a rather blasé news conference, in which she declared herself "a great player" and that it wasn't a terribly damaging setback. Things were different behind the scenes, where Victoria Azarenka saw Wozniacki and described her as "really upset" and "devastated" by the loss.
-- Tennis Channel host Bill Macatee during his lighthearted interview with the Bryan brothers: "You guys do everything together your entire life. You (Bob) got married a few months ago. Is it difficult with the three of you in the same bed at night?"
-- Multimedia sage Matt Cronin on Rafael Nadal's first set against Ivan Ljubicic in the fourth round: "Worst I've ever seen him play at Roland Garros."
-- Thanks to Tennis Channel for paying attention to Caroline Garcia, for everyone wants to follow the progress of the 17-year-old French player who nearly upset Maria Sharapova and caught everyone's eye with her fabulous groundstrokes. Playing before a jam-packed crowd on Court 2, Garcia got through the third round of the juniors, just barely (9-7 in the third over Catalina Pella). No one's betting against her in that draw.
-- It was felt in some quarters that Djokovic got a big break when his third-round match against Juan Martin del Potro was suspended by darkness after two sets, the theory being that Del Potro had "figured him out" and sent the world No. 1 into a panic. Can't buy that. Djokovic's stress level was all about the approaching darkness, an inability to see the ball, and perhaps the commotion outside the court (fans reacting angrily to the match being moved from the Chatrier stadium to Lenglen). Although Del Potro won the second set, he hadn't solved any aspect of the Djokovic puzzle. That was abundantly clear the next day, when Djokovic raced to a relatively easy win and Del Potro was left in a state of stunned admiration, saying, "I do not have many words to explain his game. I am one more victim."
-- Nice work by Tennis Channel's Justin Gimelstob, reporting that Nadal was "irate" over the fact that Fabio Fognini was able to continue playing against Albert Montanes in Sunday's five-set, fourth-round marathon, despite the fact that Fognini was obviously suffering from cramps. Nadal and Federer head up the players' council, and they spearheaded the new rule that allows injury timeouts only for legitimate injuries, not cramping (an unflattering signal that the player is simply not physically prepared).
-- Two thoughts from this corner: Montanes totally gagged that match, not taking nearly enough advantage of five match points, Fognini's lack of mobility or his comical sequence of foot-faults (five in one game!). And how about the raw power coming off Fognini's racket? Playing essentially flat-footed, unable to drive the ball in customary form, he was still delivering rockets from both sides.
-- John McEnroe at his insightful best: In the darkness-suspended fifth set Tuesday, Victor Troicki was serving for the match at 5-3, 30-0 against Andy Murray. It was in the bag, surely the end for the snarling, grumpy, borderline-haunted Murray, who was playing on a sore right ankle. Right then, Troicki sailed an awful-looking forehand about 10 feet long. "Very tight point from Troicki there," said McEnroe. "You can feel the tension from up here in the booth."
As it turned out, that was the ignition point of Murray's comeback. He saw a little opening. Before long, he was walking off the court with a 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 win that altered a lot of critics' feelings about his resolve.
Nice sense of humor, too. In an on-court interview, Murray revealed that he has a partially torn tendon in his right ankle, and "I've got more pills in me than Ozzy Osbourne."
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And, if you're wondering about Mr. Under the Radar, Roger Federer is about to play Djokovic in the semifinals. This tournament is steaming toward a sensational finish.