The institutional restriction of creativity in women's tennis can make the risk-eschewing, by-the-book fraternity of NFL head coaches seem like a hippie commune.
The rise of power players like Monica Seles and the Williams sisters forced everyone behind the baseline (and into the weight room), while modern racket technology invited lesser physical specimens to bash right along with them. Before long, just about everyone was playing the same way. It was a natural progression, but an aesthetic catastrophe. Today the metronomic banality of the Big Babe Brigade has made the women's game boring and often joyless theater.
It was also supposed to make non-conformers like Francesca Schiavone obsolete. And until this season, it nearly succeeded.
Which is precisely why Schiavone is my pick for Sportsman of the Year: just like an Italian, to paraphrase Sean Connery in The Untouchables, she brings a knife to a gun fight. With her creative, expressive brand of all-court play, the 5-foot-5½ Schiavone is the artistic underdog whose rage against stylistic homogeny became the sport's most gratifying plotline of 2010.
Thirty in women's tennis is primordially old, an age when agility and desire recedes as the next wave of younger/faster/stronger players encroaches. It's uncommon for any athlete to have a breakthrough season at 30, but it's exceedingly rare in a sport where if you haven't made a splash in your teens you're better off reevaluating your career choice.
Schiavone, who turned 30 in June, had never made it past the last eight in 39 Grand Slam appearances until she barnstormed this year's French Open draw as the No. 17 seed. Displaying a mature command of tactics and technique, the Italian began kissing the clay after each successive victory starting in the quarters, the red crushed-brick powder smudging the nose above a megawatt smile that could power the San Siro.
A 4-to-1 longshot against Sam Stosur in the final, no doubt buoyed by the enlightened sense of career mortality that comes with age, Schiavone responded with the match of her life. She shrewdly countered Stosur's aggression with aggression, playing dogged defense, rushing the net, ripping winner after winner with her unpredictable blend of pace and spin. "Maybe it was far away in the reality," reminisced Schiavone, touching her heart after becoming the oldest first-time women's Grand Slam winner in the Open era, "but, here, never far away." Two days later, she became the oldest woman in more than a decade to crack the Top 10 for the first time.
But it's not the what with Schiavone, it's the how. Watch her play. It doesn't take an expert to recognize what makes her game virtually one of a kind among today's heavy hitters. That stylish, attractive mix of topspin and slice, steered expertly with a gorgeous one-handed backhand, certainly didn't come off the assembly line. Her magnetic qualities extended off the court, where the lifelong tomboy slayed at press conferences all season long, casually dropping broken-English bon mots with a puckish charm and glazed-over look as if she just rolled out of Jeff Spicoli's VW bus. (Asked why she's a fan favorite at the U.S. Open: "I attract them because I'm beautiful.")
What really separates Schiavone is a visible joy in her play that's too rare in pro sports today, certainly in the business-like upper echelons of the women's tour, where the "season" spans 11 months across six continents and grinds down even the sport's most ebullient life forces. The true magic of her charmed season became manifest in Queens, not on friendly clay but those speedy hard courts that neutralize everything that makes Schiavone an extraordinary tennis player. She stormed to the quarterfinals without dropping a set, where she finally lost in a wind-swept thriller to Venus Williams. Her unforgettable between-the-legs winner against Alona Bondarenko -- a single point that captures the audacity and imagination and impossibility of her season in microcosm -- still elicits chills. ("Is nothing programmed," she'd say of the shot. "Is just instinct. Is art.") After leading Italy to another Fed Cup, Schiavone finished in the year-end Top 10 for the first time.
There are prodigies and there are the rest of us. Schiavone is our kind, a scrapper with no major weapons, who didn't win her first tournament until 27 (nearly a decade after turning pro), who never stopped fighting for her shot and made the most of it when it came. Her late-blooming career is an inspiration to all of life's journeymen, but it was her one-woman assault on artlessness that makes Schiavone my Sportsman choice.