June 2, 2010 -- Francesca Schiavone, Tomas Berdych, and Jurgen Melzer have arrived at their first semifinals in a major. In their home countries of Italy, The Czech Republic, and Austria, respectively, these heroes have reached the top of the charts for all things sport and beyond.
At early ages, they veered from the beaten path carrying a suitcase stuffed with belief and hope. They wanted to be great tennis players, #1 in the world, strong willed and determined, and proud.
All of them realize the importance of this occasion. They have to keep a lid on their excitement right now because the journey's not complete. It's the Zen of tennis... living and playing in the moment when they probably want to do cartwheels.
After defeating Carline Wozniacki yesterday, Schiavone (#17 seed) laid face-down on Court Suzanne Lenglen and kissed the court. She couldn't explain why. Photographers caught her with a smidgen of the terre battue at the tip of her nose and the biggest smile she could muster.
"In that moment of victory," she said yesterday, "you remember many things from when you are young. Is special because is your space, is your time, is your opportunity."
Schiavone is the only Italian and oldest woman at 29 -- she'll be 30 next month -- to advance to the semifinals at Roland Garros. She turned pro in 1996 and reached a career high singles ranking of #11 in early 2006. The farthest she's gone at any of the four majors is the quarterfinals: three times at The French Open and twice at The Australian Open, including this year. This is her thirty-eighth appearance at a Grand Slam.
"It's really something special," she said. "To live something that's coming from the heart. I always dream my goal, but to arrive is different. To live every step before to arrive I don't have many words to say. I think the bad moments help me a lot to grow up and to learn many things. When I was playing, I was thinking about this."
Schiavone has been a stalwart Fed Cup member since 2002. Her team defeated the U. S. Fed Cup Team in the 2009 finals, and is poised to play them in the finals, again, this November.
Her versatility against Wozniacki yesterday, as they played through chilly wet conditions, demonstrated her savvy and intuitive nature on clay -- her favorite surface. She threw every trick in the book at the teenager, showing fans her full range of skill and nuance.
She is the only woman in the semifinals that uses a one-handed backhand. Her hands are sensitive and deft at drop shots and acute angled shot placements. She is fit. She is ready for her match against Elena Dementieva, who is seeded #5.
"Will be very interesting match," Schiavone added. "We played many tournament together. I respect her. We are physically and mentally strong. The best one going to win."
Tomas Berdych's graceful, athletic game is reminiscent of Roger Federer, although the Czech native stands six-feet-five. Berdych has classic strokes, a smooth and powerful serve, and potential for greatness. He was the finalist, to Andy Roddick, at the Sony Ericsson Open final in April -- an ATP Masters 1000 tournament. He stands poised in Paris to meet Robin Soderling in the semifinals.
Since 2006 (he turned pro in 2002) he has hung out mostly in the top 20 of the ATP South African Rankings since, peeking once at #9 in 2007.
Berdych is probably most recognized for his shocking victory at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, over Roger Federer. At the time, Tomas was relatively unknown outside the Czech Republic. The upset was one of the biggest in Olympic history. Federer was the number one player in the world and two-time Wimbledon champion. Berdych dashed his dreams of gold, an achingly desirous goal for the Swiss, in the second round.
This is Berdych's sixth French Open. He has never been beyond the quarterfinals. Sound familiar?
"I'm feeling great. It's nice to be here," Tomas said yesterday, after defeating Mikhail Youzhny in the quarterfinals. "You know, there is another opponent, which is gonna be really strong opponent. You know, he reached the final last year."
Robin Soderling is that opponent. Berdych beat Soderling in the semifinals of Miami. Head-to-head they are practically even -- 3-4, Berdych.
But all the competition at The French Open readily admits the distinction between an elite tournament like the Sony Ericsson Open and a grand slam tournament.
"Here we're going play best of five sets, semifinal of the Grand Slam," Berdych began. "That's a different position for me. The key maybe is, I will try to stay with my game and profit from my strokes."
Jurgen Melzer said he played the match of his life today. He sent the third seed Novak Djokovic home to Serbia, coming from two sets down to win the honor of a berth in the semifinals. Djokovic had Melzer dead to rights in the third, but Melzer took the set in a tiebreak. He clinched that turning point because he changed the match -- as he put it.
"The only thing I told myself, it's my first quarterfinals in my life in a Grand Slam. Just don't go away. Just don't make it easy for him. Fight as much as you can. After that, I got back in."
In the fifth, Melzer told himself to 'get another one and make that one.' He believed he could win. The final point, after a seesaw game, came when Djokovic sent a forehand return long. Melzer's arms went up in a 'v' for victory. He looked up at his box and smiled a big one, similar in breadth as the one on Schiavone's face.
"When this match is over, it's a relief you cannot imagine. Everybody acts different. I was just staring."
Melzer is the oldest at 29 on the men's side of the tournament. He turned pro eleven years ago and is currently ranked 27, one spot below his highest of 26 last August. Melzer's favorite shot, according to the ATP Tour website, is his backhand drop shot, which he used to perfection in the last game of the match. Former ATP pro Joakim Nystrom, who paired with Mats Wilander to win the 1986 Men's Doubles Wimbledon title along with many Swedish Davis Cup rubbers, has coached him for three years.
Melzer knew all along his career journey that he had 'game.' He just hadn't connected the dots. After his five-set loss to Andy Murray at the 2008 U. S. Open, Melzer's belief in himself grew, disappointment being the touchstone.
"It was never a question of talent," he said frankly. "It was more in the head."
Melzer had an extraordinary number of break point chances against Djokovic -- 23 to be exact. At four-games all in the fifth he converted the fourth out of the twenty-three chances. It was the all important one.
"You always think you cannot miss so many break points," Melzer said. "There has to be one you make, and at the end I did. At 4-all, I finally broke him. I played a great tiebreaker in the third and then finally broke at four all."
It was the perfect end to the day for Melzer, but not for Djokovic... the player many expected to advance and face Rafael Nadal who, today, defeated Nicolas Almagro.
Melzer has never won a set from the four-time French Open champion Nadal, in their two meetings. However, they both play left-handed and lefties don't like to play lefties as much as right-handed players don't like to play lefties. All the idiosyncratic subtleties lefties bring to a match remain the same. The problems of the ball's spin and service direction will be just as odd for Nadal as they will be for Melzer.
"I want to think about Nadal. I have still tomorrow to think about Nadal. I played the biggest match of my life just maybe an hour ago. Of course, you want to have a straight mindset when you think about Nadal. But at this moment that wouldn't be possible."