Thursday, June 2, 2011

Coming of Age

Francesca Schiavone and Na Li are proving that age is just a number in women's tennis.

Break out that ancient bottle of Chateau Lafite -- it is the age of aging gracefully in women's tennis. Like fine wines, whose flavors tend to take shape over time, women's tennis players are also beginning to reach new heights as they age.

Look no further than the 2011 French Open final for exhibit A. Francesca Schiavone and Na Li are playing as if they've been aged in hand-crafted oak barrels, their finely tuned games pairing nicely with the terre battue of Roland Garros, the way a Cabernet goes perfectly with a porterhouse steak.

So, what to make of a French Open women's final with a combined age of 59? Is it youth gone bad that is paving the way for this renaissance of the likes of Schiavone, Li, Bartoli, and Zvonareva, or is it simply a question of the demands of the modern game -- the stress, the preparation, the sheer physicality -- being better suited to a woman than a girl?

One thing's for certain: While young players like Wozniacki and Azarenka have trouble meeting the expectations that are routinely placed on their shoulders, cagey veterans like Schiavone and Li have used the WTA's current void of power to reinvent themselves as serious contenders for Grand Slams.

The fact that this is possible creates an air of possibility in women's tennis. Players can take heart when they lose, for their day may be coming -- if they're willing to stay the course.

Nobody embodies this axiom -- staying the course -- better than Francesca Schiavone. The Italian is playing in her 43rd consecutive Grand Slam (tied with American Jill Craybas for the WTA's longest such streak) and she never once got past the quarters until her 39th.

That's nearly 10 full years of playing Grand Slams before she finally broke through and stole the show at the French Open last year. If coaches aren't using this as an example to their young players as we speak, shame on them. And if young players -- even those who lost early and are losing often -- aren't taking notice of what Schiavone has done (and of what they could also do if they set their minds to it), then shame on them as well.

Perhaps it comes down to parenting. Today's uber-talented youngsters seem to shoot up the ranks like lightning bolts -- but when they arrive at their day of reckoning, many of them seem deficient in mental toughness and poise. Are they spoiled? Expecting Grand Slams to be handed to them? It's not so much a knock on these players as it is social commentary. It takes kids longer to grow up in the world these days, and because of it older and more experienced players are getting the chance to use their maturity as a serious weapon against them.

We've all heard and seen so much of Schiavone's deft touch at the net, her heavy topspin and her one-handed backhand. But the essence of Schiavone is something less tangible: her grace under pressure. It's a talent in and of itself, and like a topspin forehand it can be cultivated; used to produce victories. The veterans have these intangibles and draw upon them at crunch time, and these days the kids simply don't.

Watch Schiavone take the balls to serve at deuce in the latter part of a set. That look in her eyes says so much more than any swing of the racquet could ever say. Notice how Na Li has quietly improved her on-court demeanor from what was very shaky in the Australian Open final. Li, like Schiavone, knows the importance of everything that happens on the court during a match. The margins are so thin, time is so short, and the veterans who are making hay these days know the way to win is to stay calm under pressure. They don't expect to be perfect -- they just want to be the best they can be.

Schiavone became the first WTA player over thirty years old to reach a Grand Slam final since 2005 (Mary Pierce) when she defeated Marion Bartoli in today's second semifinal. She will try to become the first 30-plus player to win a Grand Slam title since 1990 (Navratilova) on Saturday. Already, she is one of only 5 to have made a Grand Slam final in the last 20 years.

The message should be clear for today's players. Schiavone and Li are playing tomorrow's final because they were the two most complete players in the draw. It didn't happen for either of them overnight, but when their moments arrived, each was ready for the opportunity, with each facet of their game crafted to stand up to the pressure.

On Saturday each will get what she's earned through hard work and persistence: a shot to sketch their name into the clay beside some of the greatest legends to ever play.

No matter who wins or loses, the message has been sent, loud and clear.


  1. There's something special about unexpected finalists at a GS, as well as an unexpected champion. It surely gives hope to other players that someday, their turn will come.

    Most counted Schiavone out before RG even started (myself included), thinking that she was a one-hit wonder who, at 30, was ready to hang up her racquet. Turns out, she's just getting started.

    Li Na - what a story. The first Chinese player to...(fill in at least 10 blanks here). She's vying for her first Grand Slam at 29. Great for China. Great for tennis. Esp. great for the WTA.

    Both have defied the odds in so many ways. Their run at RG is well deserved, win or lose.

  2. It's been so great to watch both of them! And, yes, 59 collective years! I was pretty annoyed with the media's focus on Sharapova, so I'm glad this will put an end to that bias.


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