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Schiavone's underplayed story was victory for maturity, variety


So the aftermath for Francesca Schiavone, apparently, goes something like this in the realm of television and marketing: "Nice story, good for Italy, that's about it, let's move on."

Simple-minded, I say. That French Open final provided some of the most memorable scenes in years, and it should be remembered with the great moments in women's tennis.

I'm happy to say I was an emotional wreck by the finish, watching in a misty-eyed trance from my living room as Schiavone hugged her many supporters and spoke so eloquently to the crowd. I'm glad to know that Mary Carillo, Ted Robinson and a number of Francesca's fellow players felt the same way, just brimming with admiration for this woman.

Listen, Schiavone's 6-4, 7-6 conquest of Samantha Stosur doesn't signify any kind of landmark in the game. She is about to turn 30, it's her first real accomplishment outside of Fed Cup, and she's not going to become a sudden force on the Grand Slam circuit. In that sense, I can understand a television network's indifference, or people scratching their heads in the marketing department. The way people think in that world, a really hot item is an up-and-coming teenager (such as Melanie Oudin) who has a really nice game, and you know, she's kind of a cutie!

Well, first of all, by the end of Saturday's match, Francesca Schiavone was as beautiful as any woman in the world. There will be no glamour spreads for this lifelong tomboy who plays a mannish type of game, but what carried her to this moment -- ingenuity, devotion, desire -- burst forth in endearing smiles, gestures and words.

"I had always watched Schiavone, but I'd never met her, and I thought her kind of a dour presence," said Robinson, who worked the match with John McEnroe on NBC. "She always came across as emotional -- no surprise for an Italiano -- but appearing somewhere between a scowl and a brood. When she smiled on court after the quarterfinals, kissing the clay, it was the first time I'd seen that side of her. And who could have handled victory more completely? She really let us know how much it meant to her; such priceless reactions and sincere humility. Then she asked Johnny Mac what she should do to celebrate. It was like seeing Guga [Gustavo Kuerten] again."

Carillo was quietly cheering like mad, delighted to see such magnificence from one of her favorite players. "Forza Francesca!" Carillo said via e-mail. "So nice to see such emotion, elation. I've always admired Frankie for her fitness -- especially those sturdy, highly Italian-looking legs. She walks like the women do in all the mountain villages: quickly, stoutly, resolute. So alive. Boy, I enjoyed that one."

The plain fact is that from the standpoint of pure tennis, this was one of the best French Open finals in memory, rivaled only by Jennifer Capriati-Kim Clijsters (2001) and Steffi Graf-Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (1996) over the past 15 years. There were no bathroom breaks, medical timeouts, ill-timed fist-pumps or other dreadful displays of gamesmanship. Stosur's massive forehands and serves were on full display, reminding everyone how she'd taken down Justine Henin and Serena Williams to reach this point, while Schiavone played a brand of all-court tennis that recalled the forcefulness of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova.

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She was unpredictably inventive with her mix of pace, spin and rushes to the net, where she converted 14 of 15 points with relentlessly crisp volleying. She answered Stosur's power with aggression, alternating topspin and slice with that most refreshing sight in women's tennis, the one-handed backhand. She looked to be as fit and aware as anyone in the tournament, and when someone asked her afterward why her game had ascended so late in life, she answered, "Why late? Could be late for you, could be good for you. Maybe before, I wasn't ready. I think it's my time now."

Stosur, who has been around longer than some people realize (turned pro in 1998, played her first major eight years ago), could only marvel at Schiavone's quickness. "It doesn't matter what the age. If you've got that desire, anyone can do it," she said. "I think it proves you don't have to be the teenage wonderkid superstar to win a tournament like this."

So few players on the women's tour -- and we're talking about the highest level -- can even relate to Schiavone's approach. They know just one way to play -- blast, then blast again, then blast even harder -- and if it doesn't work, well, maybe next week. Here's how a single point separated Schiavone from that depressing monotone:

She leads 5-2 in the tiebreaker. She knows she can't let Stosur back into the match; it has to end right now. She lashes a cross-court forehand deep, forcing Stosur to recover on the run, and the moment Stosur shows her hand -- there won't be a lot of force behind this get -- Schiavone races from the baseline to the net. She's there in an instant. It's a risky move that forces her into a delicate backhand drop-volley off her shoetops, but she flicks a perfect cross-court winner.

"No!" McEnroe shouted in amazement from the NBC both. That did not happen. McEnroe-like it was, a throwback to a time when tennis was a game of artistry. The WTA's marketing people may have been visiting the shrimp tray, but a lot of important people noticed.

"I got an e-mail from Lindsay Davenport," said Robinson, "saying how great it was to see somebody really go for it in the tiebreak. After all the Safinas, Ivanovics, Kuznetsovas and Jankovics who struggle so terribly with the moment, here's someone who flourished. Absolutely fearless."

Maybe I'm well past the corner of Reasonable and Cash Cow, but I would market the hell out of Francesca Schiavone. You hear so much talk about how young girls had better make it big in tennis by the time they're 16, or it's all over, and it's complete nonsense. This was a victory for maturity, reaching the heights of glory at your physical peak. It's about a woman who kept the faith over a long, often-difficult career, all the while showing exceptional loyalty to her country (the U.S. will be up against Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta, each brand-new to the Top 10, in the upcoming Fed Cup final).

I contend that the next really influential player, whether she's from Baltimore, Moscow or Buenos Aires, will have shaken the cookie-cutter baseline doctrine. She won't be a statuesque looker, she'll be a jock, like Schiavone, with great hands and agility, and it won't be about lipstick or photo shoots, but smart, creative tennis and the kind of belief symbolized in those T-shirts they were passing around the Italian contingent on Saturday: Nothing Is Impossible. She'll bury her face in clay after a big match is over, and then she'll get back down there again, because it feels so good.

"I just loved watching her go for it," said Mary Pierce, the former French Open champion who presented Schiavone her trophy. "She has such a wonderful attitude, she's a fighter, and she doesn't let it go. She has heart in her. She wanted this, and she took it."

If Saturday marked some kind of trifle in tennis' big picture, we aren't seeing it very clearly. We're throwing up an awkward toss and double-faulting horribly into the net.