Will “La Lionessa” Save the WTA? Maybe She Already Has.

I’ll admit it. I really didn’t know a whole lot about Francesca Schiavone twelve months ago. I remember seeing her play a match at the 2009 U.S. Open when all the headlines were about her fellow Fed Cup teammate Flavia Pennetta making the top ten that summer. And I remember seeing her down at Indian Wells last March when she played Aravane Rezai and telling myself how much I liked “Fran’s” one handed backhand but then kind of forgot about the Italian. And I was like a lot of people who finally took full notice of Schiavone when she made her stellar run to the French Open title, an achievement many tennis fans embraced because of Schiavone’s “Nothing is Impossible” attitude. Remember when she made the semis and everyone was like “that’s great for her” and then expected her to bow out to Elena Dementieva? And then everyone expected Sam Stosur to overpower Schiavone in the finals but instead we were treated to watching a player seize the moment for their place in history. And relishing it.

As 2011 opened, I’m sure some have wondered if it could be Schiavone’s last year on tour. That she might have some nice wins, enjoy her spotlight as the defending champion at Roland Garros and then ride into the sunset with her Slam trophy in one hand and her fist raised in the other. Well, based on her performance this week in Melbourne, we have likely not heard the final roar from “La Lionessa”. In fact, at age 30 she just might be getting started. After winning her now classic match against Svetlana Kuznetsova in under five hours on Sunday, Schiavone shocked many, including Caroline Wozniacki, by putting in another bravura display of shotmaking and cunning strategy to take the first set from the No. 1 player and then go up 3-1 in the second set before reality, in this case Schiavone’s worn out body, won the battle over her Australia-sized heart and slowed down the Italian enough to allow Wozniacki back into the match which the Dane finally won, disputed medical time out and all, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Even though she lost, the effort Schiavone produced on court inspired everyone watching including Patrick McEnroe, former Davis Cup coach and ESPN analyst who probably said it best when he “tweeted” “Let’s be honest. Schiavone has brought this tourney…and women’s tennis to life.” Wozniacki may have won the match and secured her No. 1 ranking for the time being, but whoever wins the Australian Open will likely end up being the second most talked about player for the event next to Schiavone, even among the men. And with her new career high ranking of No. 4, who’s to say Schiavone couldn’t repeat as French Open champion. Or even, challenge for the top ranking if she can find herself deep into events throughout the year, cheered on by a whole new group of fans she earned this week down under.

Has Schiavone, according to McEnroe, brought women’s tennis to life? Before the AO started, a lot of articles basically trashed the WTA, assigning it “third tier status” next to the “Golden Age” of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal along with the steady play of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Add in that for many a Slam without Serena Williams is not considered “legit” and you get how many feel the WTA has been lacking something or someone to create interest outside the usual big names. Someone like a Federer or Nadal who because of their many achievements transcend the sport for everyone to see.

For some reason, and bear with me, when I watch Schiavone and then watch people watch her play, I’m somehow reminded of Jimmy Connors. Now I know “Jimbo” was not everyone’s cup of tea, but his run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 1991 when he was 39 inspired a lot of people. And it wasn’t just because of his age. It was because he was out there hustling for every point and letting everyone one into what he was feeling on the court. There’s that famous video of Connors, after forcing a fifth set tiebreak against Aaron Krickstein when Connors, gasping for air, sits down in a flower stand and then looks into a nearby television camera and says, “That’s why they’re here. That’s what they paid for,” as fans all around him yell their heads off.

And that “something” is what fans have paid for, even if they didn’t have a ticket to Rod Laver Arena this past week. They want to watch and root for a player who not only gives them everything on the court but also lets them share, as Schiavone has said, “in the emotion” of being with them on court, living and dying with them on every point. Some say Rafael Nadal does this already, and he does in his own way, but for the women’s game to have someone that fans can live and die with may be what has been lacking for so long.

When she finished her match against Kuznetsova, Schiavone was asked, and rightly so, how she was feeling and if she thought she would have anything left physically for her match versus Wozniacki. Schiavone said, “If you ask me now, I say no. But, yeah, I’m young. I can run; I can do anything. Yeah, for Tuesday I will be I don’t know how, but it will be good. Why not?”

Why not indeed? We know now that to question Schiavone’s efforts on a court, even when nothing is expected, is futile. Because as we should know by now “Nothing is Impossible”. Like Schiavone, 2011 is young, and still may provide more surprises from the veteran Italian. And for her many fans, including this one, all we can say is keep running Francesca.

Because we will be running with you.

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