The 2010 clay season will always be remembered (as well it should be) for the emergence of Francesca Schiavone as the French Open champion, but--so dramatic was that emergence--it may be easy to forget some of the other drama that occurred.
Aravane Rezai surprised the tennis world by winning Madrid. The very hard-hitting Frenchwoman, known for her metallic-colored dresses, began delivering her surprises in the very first round. The unseeded Rezai upset five-time French Open champion Justine Henin, and that defeat included a 6-0 third set.
A Tennis Channel commentator remarked that Rezai "cruised through the rest of the tournament," but he was obviously watching a different event. Rezai had to fight hard to get to the final. She beat Klara Zakapalova in the second round, but had to play the thriller of the tournament (and probably one of the best matches of the season) in the next round against a very in-form Andrea Petkovic. Petkovic, though she saved six match points, was finally overcome by the Frenchwoman, who defeated her 6-4, 7-6 (8).
Next came Jelena Jankovic, and Rezai had to fight like mad to win that one, too especially in the first set (do you think that, at Tennis Channel, they don't even watch the matches?). She got a break in the semifinals, when Lucie Safarova had to retire after the first set. Then, in the final, Rezai faced Venus Williams. The unseeded Frenchwoman began the match by holding a first serve win percentage of 100; needless to say, she won that set.
Rezai then went down 2-5 in the second set, but she rallied, saved six set points, and suddenly, held three match points. She won the championship on her first one, defeating Williams 6-2, 7-5, and becoming the second unseeded player to win a premier WTA event.
That was a lot of drama, but there was also quite a bit of drama in Rome that year when another unseeded player, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, took that title. Her draw was impressive. After beating Alla Kudryavtseva in the opening round, she then defeated soon-to-be French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, Caroline Wozniacki, Lucie Safarova, and 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic.
Martinez Sanchez's opponent in the final was two-time (2007, 2008) Rome champion Jelena Jankovic, who had knocked out Serena Williams in the semifinals. Jankovic was highly favored to win her third Italian Open title, but the tricky Spaniard with the tricky serve had other ideas.
Making Jankovic run generally doesn't have the effect of making some other players run. The Serbian star, in her day, loved to run. But this was the final, both players had to be a bit tired, and Martinez Sanchez made sure that Jankovic ran plenty--both vertically and horizontally. With her sharp lefty serve and her slices, spins and volleys, the Spaniard had a lot to throw at Jankovic. She also had a cunning drop shot, which--in the end--worked for her even when Jankovic got to it, because going for it only increased the Serbian player's fatigue.
But Martinez Sanchez wasn't just hitting a lot of drop shots--she was using the drop shot as a return of serve. This very clever strategy enraged some fans, who said the Spaniard wasn't playing "real" tennis. Really? I thought the object was to win the match.
It was quite a spectacle, what with Jankovic running all over the court and falling down multiple times until her lime kit was caked in red clay. Toward the end of the second set, the pair engaged in rapid-fire volleying right at the net, which thrilled spectators.
Martinez Sanchez, who hit 44 winners, defeated Jankovic 7-6, 7-5, in a truly stunning championship match. "You were killing me with those drop shots," Jankovic said to her at the trophy ceremony.
What made Martinez Sanchez's victory even more dramatic was that she was known as a talented player whose nerves tended to betray her when she faced top players. But for some reason, that year in Rome, the Spaniard kept her nerves intact and completed what was possibly the most entertaining run of the season.