Commentary

Schiavone right at home at the French

Originally Published: May 17, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

PARIS -- So here she is again. At the end of a crowded and confusing women's tournament, defending champion Francesca Schiavone is back in the final and now the favorite to repeat last year's improbable victory here.

There must be something about this place.

"When I was young I always dreamed [about] this tournament, so maybe is coming from a long, long time ago," she said. "When I came here the first year was in juniors.

"During that week there was big match, Steffi Graf against Monica Seles. I remember that I went there with the camera to take a picture. Every year before come here, I go to [look at] that picture."

That's not the whole story, of course. Schiavone is at home at this event, but also on the surface where it is played. She slides effortlessly on the clay, which also magnifies the spin and variety she can generate with her one-handed backhand. Though not one of the hardest hitters on the tour, she is winning to move forward and hits a heavy ball. "Is good for me for spin, for different kind of balls. I like to play high and then stop short," she said.

"Everything mix. I love it."

None of the other three semifinalists and only one of the quarterfinalists -- Svetlana Kuznetsova -- could even begin to say the same. Schiavone will be facing Li Na, who already has admitted she does not like facing the Italian's type of style: "Topspin, drop shot, always have to [be] running and hit the ball," Li said.

But as her new coach, Michael Mortensen, pointed out, Li is already growing more comfortable on the surface. "She's sliding to the ball, she's not using as much energy -- staying low," Mortensen said. "It's just small things. She's very intelligent. You just tell her, 'You have to do like this,' and show her how to do it, and why she has to do it -- and she can do it."

[+] EnlargeLi Na
Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty ImagesLi Na says she's not completely comfortable on clay. Imagine if she was.

While working with Mortensen, Li has made the semifinals of the big warm-up events in Madrid and Rome, and now has reached the finals of the French Open, making this by far her best season on clay. The two only had an initial agreement to work together for these three tournaments, but it seems likely the partnership will continue. Even before they started working together, Mortensen says, Li was "one of his favorite" players and describes her as the "most talented player of the girls."

It was Caroline Wozniacki's father who suggested the Danish coach to Li's trainer, and the two hit it off quickly.

"That evening we went out for dinner, and we start talking, and I could feel that there was a chemistry between us -- we could speak to each other, understand each other, relax in our company. That's important," Mortensen said.

This will be Li's second Grand Slam final in a row, following her run to the Australian Open final at the beginning of the year. At that time, she was being coached by her husband, and she entertained the crowds with jokes about his snoring and careful watch over their credit cards. Now Jiang Shan is back to being the husband. No more detailed technical analysis, just encouragement.

"Easier," he told ESPN.com in an interview. "Just talk a little bit, some shots you play fantastic. Just give her compliments."

Mortensen feels one of his most important contributions has been psychological. "Try to keep her positive if she makes mistakes," he said. "Every decision you make, be proud of it," Mortensen tells her. "If you think it's bad mistake, be proud that you made a mistake. Next time maybe you do it differently and still, you made a decision that time, it must have been the right decision. So it's not a wrong decision."

Li recovered nicely from a poor spell in the middle of the first set in her previous match, and will need to maintain a good mindset in the final as well. This time, she will not be satisfied simply with getting to this stage. "I just need one more step," said Li, who has said her goal is to win a Grand Slam. "This time is second time to the final. Of course, you know what you should do. I know it's different surface, but you play six matches already. So, yeah, this time I know what I should do in the final."

She is also conscious of her role as a flag-bearer for her country. "I think I prove a little bit for China tennis, because, I mean, I'm sure they showed the match same time in China," she said. "Maybe children, they saw the match, and they think that maybe one day they can do the same or even better."

Either way, however, Mortensen believes reaching two finals, particularly this one, represents an important leap forward for Li. "For sure she will raise to another level," he said. "But you never know how they will react. There's all this going on right now so maybe she has to come down a little bit. But she wants to perform at Wimbledon, U.S. Open -- all the tournaments. But she's adjusting. What's important is to enjoy.

"She's a star. What more can you ask for," he added. "Just take it in."

Schiavone, who now has ex-player Tathiana Garbin on her team, has also been doing just that. The two veterans, who will contest the oldest final pairing since Wimbledon in 1998, have displayed an ease and lightheartedness that many of their younger colleagues are struggling to find.

Neither thinks they are too old for more success. Li, 29, said, "Age doesn't mean anything. Age just paper. It's just plus one."

Schiavone said the pair were "like the wine. … Stay in the bottle more is much, much better."

"We are not similar like playing, but we are strong person, strong personality," she added. "The experience maybe are changing a little bit the age, because some years ago the champion were always young players -- Martina Hingis, the Williamses.

"Now it's changing."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.