An Italian shines bright on the tennis courts

Francesca Schiavone, one of the top 30 players in the world, takes on the Rogers Cup

By Elena Serra

In Italy, women who decide to take up a sports career frequently distinguish themselves on the international scene only after years of anonymity and toil, jostling between federations and inadequate training facilities that often force them to leave the country.
Among them is Francesca Schiavone, the only Italian tennis player to make three quarterfinal appearances in Grand Slam tournaments, and who, at 29, can boast ranking as one of the top 30 players in the world.
Born in Milan and currently residing in London, Schiavone first handled a tennis racquet when she was 10 and has never looked back.
The athletic skills, the notable tactical improvements, and the decidedly above-average open-court play – compared to others currently on the circuit – have bestowed Schiavone with a pleasant surprise – a second youth – considering that players usually enter the professional circuit before turning 18.
She is having an excellent year, with superb performances at Wimbledon and at the Prague finals.
Ranked 26th, Schiavone is outranked by Flavia Pennetta, the player from Brindisi who is 14 spots higher on the WTA standings and who recently won the Los Angeles tournament.
The two Italians, along with Mara Santangelo and Roberta Vinci, won the Fed Cup in 2006 – the most important women’s national team tournament, equivalent to the men’s Davis Cup. It was the first win ever for an Italian national tennis team.
Schiavone is currently in town for the Rogers Cup, the premiere Canadian tennis tournament, which this year boasts a record 35 top world-class players. The Rogers Cup began on Aug. 15 and runs until Aug. 23.
Schiavone spoke to Corriere Canadese/Tandem about her career, her training routine, and other more personal notes.
Also representing the Azzurri at the Toronto tournament at York University’s Rexall Centre are Pennetta and Karin Knapp, the young promising Italian who is currently ranked 159th in the world.

You have a long satisfying career and an Italian record with three quarterfinal appearances in Grand Slam tournaments. After six years of being ranked as one of the top 30 players in the world, what are your thoughts about your career so far?
“During the past six years, I’ve had good, positive experiences. This allows me to maintain my high ranking and continue to work hard to achieve even more.”

What was lacking in 2005 when you just missed getting to the top 10?
“I think that, for a number of reasons, the timing wasn’t right in 2005 to make the top 10, but the positive thing is that today I still have the chance to get there. What more can I want?”
At age 29, what are your future goals?
“My objective is to return to playing at the highest levels and to achieve new personal highs.”
We know that Italy doesn’t give tennis its due attention, and that tennis players are often forced to leave the country. What was your reason for leaving?
“I want to keep improving and evolve, and to do so I can’t stay in Italy but have to seek out new incentives and new training methods. It’s not only useful but it also provides a strong stimulus.”

What would it take, if anything, for you to return to Italy?
“Better facilities and a team that provides calmness and professionalism.”

In this scenario, what does it mean for you to play in the Fed Cup – the most important women’s national team competition – which you won in 2006?
“The Fed Cup is a very special competition for me, and I’m honoured that Italy provides me the chance to compete in it each year. We have an optimal team and expect to get to the final in November. Together, we will work very hard to try to regain the title.”

What do you consider your best moment in your tennis career?
“The one I’m currently living. I love facing new challenges daily.”

What is your relationship like with the other Italian players? Competitiveness, cooperation, or friendship?
“Competitiveness, cooperation, and friendship. A perfect mix to experience on the professional circuit. I have no preferences.”

What are the factors that allow you to have your best game? How important is mental preparation for you? What other factors to you tend to before a tournament?
“The most important factors are technical ones: acceleration; control your shots; physical reflexes and strength; tactical – as far as studying opponents and their style of play; and finally the mental part, working on the calmness and lucidity that an athlete must possess to be ready for anything!”

Regarding athletic preparedness, do you have a new coach?
“For now I’m counting on Luis Delgado and Giovanni Galeazzi with whom I am very comfortable. At the end of November I’ll decide on my new team.”

How do you feel being a role model for many young Italian girls interested in the world of tennis, and what would be your advice to them?
“I want to send them positive, convincing, and even entertaining messages – ultimately, tennis is a game. It’s important that over time you not only attend to the technical side and to winning, but also to good behaviour on and off the courts, so that you can be respected and be a good example.”

You’ll be participating in Toronto’s Rogers Cup until Aug. 23. What are you expecting from this tournament?
“I like the Toronto tournament very much. Canada is a great country, and Canadians love their tennis. What better opportunity to give it my all to display my skills, and enjoy the fan appreciation? I will go all out to win.”

There is a sizeable Italian-Canadian community in Toronto that often manifests its strong connection to its roots. Leaving aside for a moment the lack of acknowledgement and attention of Italians to tennis, how important is the support of Italian fans to you? “I think that Italians on their own love tennis, and watch it on TV or follow it in the papers whenever they get the chance. I know that there will be many Italian fans at Toronto’s tournament, and I’ll have the opportunity to thank them for coming out to see me. For me, it’s wonderful to be acknowledged as a good athlete even by fans outside the national territory.”

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