It was a tough opener for both players for different reasons. For the defending champion Garbiñe Muguruza, it was the second time in a row she was coming into the tournament a little win-shy and this time the expectation on her would be massive as a first time defending Slam champion.
In fact she had started to show signs of recovery with a great run in Rome to the semi-final until a neck injury in the warm-up had her retire early in the match. But it was a strong start by the Spaniard, who jumped out to an early lead before 2010 champion Francesca Schiavione finally got her eye in to at least get on the board.
Muguruza delivered a third break to coast to the first set, half way to ending a former champion’s journey to get to this point. While the second start started with another break of the Schiavone serve, the Italian broke back and managed to stay on terms with Muguruza until a sharp break to love at the end of the second set.
Schiavone did not stop fighting, saving three match points before succumbing on the fourth, to (potentially?) close out an 18-year career at Roland Garros.
Muguruza acknowledged it was going to be a difficult opener, saying: “I think it was a tough first match. I think Schiavone, she can be a very tricky player. I think she has moments where she’s unbelievable, and it’s going to be, no matter who in front of me difficult. I mean, doesn’t matter. If Schiavone on first round, I thought, that’s a tough match here.
“I’m happy that I managed to play, to be able to be kind of composed out there, because I wasn’t sure how I was going to react again in the center court, playing against an ex-champ. You know, I wanted to do it well, so I kind of found a balance, even though some moments were difficult to [overcome].”
Ever the perfectionist though it was a philosophical Schiavone who assessed her level of play at possibly her last Roland Garros.
She said: “Tough first match. You know, when you arrive and you win some matches, then you arrive to the Center court, maybe you feel a little bit better.
“But today was really tough. I think my play could hurt her, but I think I arrive a little bit late, because first set went too fast. Mistakes, too much. The other one, take one set advantage is a lot, and the second set, I think I didn’t take my opportunity, but I build something.”
Usually so effusive, with extravagant hand gestures, she was understandably a little subdued, as she continued:
“I think the first three games you could see that I couldn’t put one ball in. And then I say, Wow, I feel like 15 years old (smiling). I say, Oh, come on. It’s 18 times that you play here.
“This is me. I am like this. This is my power. This is my strength. I have to manage this. Anyway, I’m proud of what I did. I want to keep going and watch this tournament from outside. Is pain, but because clay, I love to play on clay, but what can you do?”
It cannot have escaped people’s notice that the clay season has been dominated by the thorny subject of wild-cards. The return of Maria Sharapova to the tour ater a 15-month drug suspension has relied on these innocuous ‘gimmes’ and Stuttgart for her return was contentious enough, denying former champion Julia Goerges a chance to play in her home tournament.
Then came Rome. The tournament was only too happy to offer their former champion a wildcard, but could only muster up an offer to Schiavone for the pre-tournament qualifying competition.
With the clamour of disapproval ringing around, Schiavone just got her head down, winning a title in Bogota and making the final in Rabat and thus hoiking herself up into the Roland Garros main draw as of right.
Few would have forgotten the emotions of her win in 2010, beating the far more fancied Sam Stosur in the final, and she backed it up the following year with a run to the final.
‘You Never Know’
But the tour takes it toll as she explained, having announced at the start of the season that this would be her last on tour.
“You never know. For the moment, I want to live this moment this year. I have to see how I feel physically. You know, is not easy to wake up and run again for six hours and push yourself. But we will see. I think after US Open I will ask to myself what I want to do.
“I don’t want to say something that is not true or yes, but I’m going to say no. Then if something change — I don’t know. I didn’t think about this. I’m thinking about Roland Garros and to play this match. Now to stop a little bit and go to Wimbledon. That’s the most important things for the moment.”
Muguruza said both in her on-court interview and when asked after her match that Schiavone was a legend. She was already (maybe unfairly) regarded as a journeywoman which added a whole hint of charm to her Slam run.
The defending champion said: “She has been in the tour for such a long time, I think, and when I look back on some videos, I heard her name since I’m, like, I don’t know how old. She’s still playing. She’s fitter than most of the players. I’m, like, how is possible?
“I think she loves it. She kind of enjoys out there. Today I think it was just a tough match for both of us, because we kind of love here. I don’t know. I saw her match in the final here, and I kind of like it. I was happy that she won the French Open at that time.”
With the longevity of Serena Williams and the recent resurgence of sister Venus Williams, Schiavone paid tribute to those who have started to span generations of tennis watchers.
“I couldn’t imagine to keep going to play tennis and to arrive so high like I did. It’s something that you do just step by step, years by years. Can you see Venus that she’s playing 20 years here?
“It’s amazing. It’s something I think very special that just if you love the sport you can do it. Just if you go through problems physically and you keep going to work and push your limits every time, I think is fantastic. I see Venus here, and I say, Wow, this is a big example for everybody.”
The emotions however were not far behind, with perhaps the most poignant comments from a fan favourite who refused to lash out at her own home tournament blanking her, instead gratefully accepting a wild-card from Madrid the week before who made a point of wanting to honour her career.
She concluded: “I hate sometimes tennis (smiling). Is a big relation. Is a love that you have to love and then you hate sometimes. It’s like when you marry someone (smiling)
“When I start in November, end of November, my preparation was both. When I say, This is the last push that I do. I think is coming both, like decision, mental, heart, physically. I don’t know yet, because I didn’t finish.
“But for today I was really impressed for my emotions. I was really impressed. I say, Come on. Let it go.”
It was an emotional moment, for Schiavone and all in the press conference as she delivered that last sentence in hushed tones, welling up a little at the end, yet strangely a fitting farewell on her terms.
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