Defending champion Francesca Schiavone returned to Court Philippe Chatrier on Monday and picked up where she left off last year.
It's been 50 weeks since Francesca Schiavone won the French Open last year. I should be over it. It should feel like it's old news. But somehow, the magic of Schiavone -- of what she accomplished and how she accomplished it (so much freaking GUSTO) -- remains with me.
And the more I think about it, reflect on it, and mull it over, I realize that to me it was perhaps the greatest tennis moment I've ever witnessed. I can't really explain why it is I feel that way. We each have our own ideas of what is truly inspiring, what is truly captivating, and what will last in our hearts forever. For me, it was Schiavone's run last year. Yes, it was about the tennis, but it was also about something soulful, something human, something that not even Federer, Nadal, or anyone else that I can remember has ever given to me.
I do believe that for me, Schiavone is the soul of tennis. And the reason they talk about women's tennis being in a dead period is because "they" refuse to open up and see what is absolutely gorgeous about it right now. That a woman like Schiavone, a virtual journeywoman for her whole career, can grow and grow and work and work, and eventually reach the pinnacle of the sport, is perhaps the best endorsement for the game that it could ever want.
Hope is a part of the equation, and if you can dream it, you can do it.
So, while everybody else wants to lament the missing Williams sisters, Henin's retirement and the legitimacy of the current No. 1, I invite you to join me in celebrating the spirit of Schiavone and others like her on the women's tour.
Francesca's bubbly spirit was intact today on Chatrier, and the result was a breezy 6-2, 6-0 win for the Italian.
To see her impose her all court game on young American Melanie Oudin was a sight to behold, and it triggered a flood of memories that served to remind me just how unique a talent Schiavone is. With her, it's not only about the tennis; it's about the tactics, the intensity, the courage, and something else — something joyous.
Martina Navratilova was also impressed. "I might have to revise my favorites for the tournament," she said during the first set of her match against Oudin. "She is striking the ball really well."
Martina went on to comment about how Francesca is going to really want to defend this title in spite of the fact that she hasn't been in the greatest form in 2011, saying "She is a proud woman."
Talk about hitting the nail on the head. She's a proud woman indeed. And what makes her pride even more compelling is just how real she is.
If you didn't see her post match press conference today, allow me to quote my favorite part of it for you here:
Schiavone was asked what it meant to play in Chatrier again after all that happened last year, and in her typical animated style, she didn't hold back on the subject. "I'm still shaking a little bit," she said with a smile. "A lot of adrenaline. I felt really happy to be there." Then she started gesturing with her hands and her face like only an Italian could do. "That court is fantastic, because it's compact," she said. "The court is perfect. Everything is going around you and it's like you know when you go home and your mom do everything for you, and you feel comfortable? I felt like this but really a lot of adrenaline. I was excited to be there at 11 o'clock on center court...great...for me, it's great."
Whether Schiavone defends her title successfully or loses in the next round does not matter. What matters most is that Schiavone is in love with the sport of tennis and it shows when she plays. There's something tangible in her game – something lustful — that we can all latch on to. It is something that is far too often missing from today's top athletes: the pure and unbridled love for the sport.
Schiavone may not be the smoothest, the most powerful, or even the smartest player, but she's the most passionate by far.
There's something to be said for that, and the words speak volumes.