Francesca Schiavone hadn't rubbed the clay off of her face when they started--the pronouncements that the Italian's French Open win is bad for the WTA. You can see the complaining in a number of forums, or you can read it in more formal venues. Greg Couch put in succintly: "Schiavone's win was one giant leap for a woman, but one small step backward for tenniskind. She is a likable woman living a great moment in a special way, and while that's great for the club of tennis fanatics, it was a moment that will go unnoticed outside of Italy."
I have news for the detractors: If Sam Stosur had won, the only difference would be that her country, Australia, is bigger than Italy. Because women's tennis is marketed for its supposed sex appeal--using a very rigid, very Caucasian standard for what is "beautiful"--rather than for its sports value. Only the superstars like Venus and Serena Williams--players who are so successful that they have to be noticed for their athletic accomplishments--get past the gate. (Though I don't really know what that means, since so many people in the U.S. who converse so easily about the sisters have never even seen them play.)
Couch does go on to explain that a win by Stosur might have been the beginning of a very big deal. He could be right, so if that is the case, I wonder how many majors Stosur would have to win before television viewers stopped wishing she had slimmer arms, more revealing tennis outfits, and long blonde hair? Jon Wertheim gets right to the point: "But I'm not sure if you gave the WTA or NBC truth serum, they would say the 29-year-old Italian is quite the champion they envisioned. If this had been Caroline Wozniacki and Stosur, it'd be a different story."
And even if Stosur is destined to win a lot of majors and become a tennis superstar, and her big debut has been postponed, why is the Schiavone storyline so bad?
It is, in fact, wonderful. Schiavone is ranked outside the top 10, she's from a country that had never produced a female major tournament champion, she's almost 30 years old, she has a history of not being able to hold her nerve at big moments, and she has an utterly charming personality. Oh--and she played truly fantastic tennis in the final. Just imagine--if her name were Francisco Schiavone, she would be an instant sports legend.
On top of everything else, Schiavone and Stosur produced one of the best major finals of the past few years. The match didn't go three sets, but it was well-played and fun to watch. The tour now has an opportunity to promote Schiavone as a special kind of champion--a veteran tour member who was savvy enough and tough enough to upset a huge favorite. The sports media also has an opportunity to promote women's tennis with a fresh and touching story; as a bonus, Schiavone gives a more entertaining interview than most of the other players, and is quite engaging.
Schiavone's French Open win is one of the most dramatic tennis stories of the past several years. What a shame that so many are viewing it as the "wrong" story, and as somehow deterimental to women's tennis.
The good news is that there has also been an outpouring of appreciation for Schiavone and what she did Saturday. In the New York Times, Geoff McDonald wrote: "But the real story of the match was how Schiavone embraced the biggest moment of her career with a passionate, gutsy performance that moved many in the crowd--especially her Italian supporters--to tears of joy. It was a bravura performance by Schiavone, 29, who played the match of her life when it counted most."
I like that version of the story. And, as Stosur herself said, "I think it proves you don't have to be the teenage wonderkid superstar to win the tournament like this." Amen, sister.