During the French Open, Francesca Schiavone compared herself with Capricciosa pizza. "I don't give you margherita," she said. "I give you Capricciosa, different kind of ingredient." Schiavone needed all the spicy ingredients she could locate in her round of 16 match against seed 23rd Svetlana Kuznetsova. The match lasted four hours and 44 minutes, which makes it the longest women's match in the Open Era, and the second-longest women's match of all time. It also produced desperate, beautiful, edge-of-the-seat tennis, even toward the end, when both players took turns looking punch-drunk as they struggled mightily in the Australian heat.
The match was acutally a "you had to be there" experience--hard to describe in a brief report. Schiavone won the first set 6-4. She served for it at 5-3, was broken, but broke back to win. But the 6th seed's level of play dropped in the second set, as Kuznetsova's rose. Kuznetsova became more aggressive, and took the second set 6-1. At this point, an hour and 44 minutes had gone by, and no one could have guessed what was about to transpire. Both players had physical issues: Earlier in the month, Schiavone injured her groin and had to retire from Hopman Cup play, and Kuznetsova's feet were covered in blisters. At the end of the second set, Kuznetsova had her blisters treated and her feet re-wrapped, while Schiavone took a break to change into some dry clothes.
Throughout the third set, Schiavone experienced obvious groin pain. As the hours passed, Kuznetsova's eyes glazed over; she later said she had trouble keeping up with the score and with whose turn it was to serve. The 23rd seed remained the aggressor, however, and--to make it even harder for her opponent--she served first, so Schiavone was always in the position of trying to keep up. There were some ridiculously good rallies, with perhaps the most memorable occurring at 4-all. Kuznetsova continued to put the pressure on Schiavone, but Schiavone continued to find an answer.
And so it went. At 7-8, Schiavone was down 0-40, and that looked like it would be the end of it, but she saved three straight match points. She then hit what appeared to be a winning volley, but she lost her balance (not hard to understand) and her body touched the net before the ball had bounced a second time, so she did not get the point. She did hold, however, for 8-all. Kuznetsova then held for 9-8, and Schiavone then went down 15-40. She saved another two match points, and then--a moment later--she saved a sixth match point. But when she served for the match, the Italian was broken.
Schiavone also had an opportunity to serve for the match at 11-10, but instead of serving, she called for the trainer. She was cramping, and the trainer called for the doctor, just in case. (By this time, there was probably an ambulance parked at the gate.) A few moments later, Kuznetsova called for a trainer, too. Schiavone had some treatment and some liquids, and was even smiling and carrying on with the medical staff. She then served for the match--and was broken again.
Later, serving a 13-14, Schiavone held at love. By this time, Kuznetsova was hitting only two kinds of shots--brilliant winners and sloppy errors. I was exhausted, just watching the two of them. At 14-all, Schiavone broke her opponent, and served for the match a third time. She went down 0-30, and it was natural to think "here we go again," but she made two more points, then had her first match point at 40-30. Kuznetsova saved that match point. The Russian would go on to save a second match point, but when she reached her third match point, Schiavone put an end to what is likely to be the stand-out match of the year.
The third set lasted exactly three hours. The pair wound up hitting a total of 128 winners and 135 unforced errors, and there were seventeen breaks of serve. The quality of tennis remained very high, even when both players were practically depleted in every way. It was a contest of epic proportions, and a credit to the athleticism and mental strength of both players.
Curiously, up until this match was played, the longest women's match in the Open Era was played only last year, also at the Australian Open. Barbora Zahlavova Strycova defeated Regina Kulikova 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 in the first round in a four hour and 19-minute match. The longest women's match in history lasted six hours and 31 minutes, and included a 643-shot ralley.