May 31, 2011 -- The defending French Open Champion Francesca Schiavone loves to drive fast. Today she did just about the opposite in her quarterfinal match.
"I burn like this," she explained. "I start the diesel today too slow. I burn too slow."
Let's be clear. Driving fast for the five-foot-five Schiavone means speeds at which most mortals would flinch.
"I drive at 240 kph (150 mph), sometimes 250, sometimes 260, and I scare myself at that speed," she told Mark Hodgkinson, tennis correspondent for The Telegraph. "Si, si, for sure. I don't find that relaxing. It do it for the adrenalin."
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova's engine didn't sputter, though. The nineteen year old broke loose from the gate, taking a chunk of a lead against the veteran Schiavone in less than twenty minutes: 4-1.
"She made it difficult for me at the beginning," Pavlyuchenkova began. "She really didn't start well."
Schiavone's lethargic tennis apparently rattled the teen. But she would have none of those nerves. Instead she played her heart out. She hit clean winners from all corners of Court Philippe Chatrier. It was her first quarterfinal in Paris. Here she was playing the defending champion. Would she have an easy day? Would she make it to the semifinals?
"I couldn't play inside the lines," Schiavone said, explaining her tennis.
Papillion, which is Anastasia's nickname, amazed French fans with a first set score of 6-1. She needed one more set.
"At six-one I told myself keep going. Hit six, seven balls," Schiavone said. "That's the way to try to do something."
But at 4-1 in the second, the Russian's mind must have been abuzz -- she was two games away. But inexperience called out.
"I lost concentration at four-one," Papillon began. "All of a sudden she played good game and I wasn't aggressive. I didn't serve well. She start putting balls in."
Schiavone repeatedly reminded herself -- 'keep going, keep going.' She played two good games and pulled even to 4-games all. At that point she stepped on the gas, seeking the familiar adrenalin rush from winning on center court in Paris.
Last year at The French Open, fans witnessed Schiavone's storybook victory over a surging Samantha Stosur. The Aussie had convinced the tennis world that the title would be hers. But Schiavone sliced and diced her way to victory. The entire planet was enthralled. The Italian press and its people couldn't get enough of their 29-year-old champion.
And here she was back this year to prove herself again.
Schiavone's spirit rose even higher at the end of the second set. She began to hit out. To hit spin from inside the baseline, a tactic she couldn't accomplish earlier. Her serving percentage climbed little by little. She was rounding the hairpin turn of the match.
She closed out the second set 7-5, winning six of the last seven games.
"I was ready to play longer at the end of the second," Schiavone said. She was ready to drive the ball to victory.
She raced to 3-0, taking command of the court. She advanced to 5-1. But, the Russian teen wasn't done. She revived her aggressive tennis and tied it all up to 5-5. Schiavone had held two match points. She was not a happy Francesca.
The Italian's willingness to extend the match to god knows how long -- there's no tiebreaker at The French Open -- was swallowed in a moment as she put the breaks on her opponent. She wouldn't have to win by two games; she'd broken to go up 6-5 ... the breath of air she needed to win.
Final score: 16 75 75.
"Very difficult to lost that kind of match," Pavlyuchenkova said. "It was a very good experience. She was really great today."
Schiavone was the oldest Grand Slam champion, in the Open Era, to win her title last year at Roland Garros. Plus, she is the only Italian female to win that distinction.
Before the tournament began this year, pundits hemmed and hawed about the odds of a repeat performance. Most didn't give her much support. However most have discreetly moved closer to her corner, at least.
We will see where loyalties rest in the semifinals, when Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli meets Francesca Schiavone on Thursday. Perhaps the band of friends that drove all night last year from Milan, Schiavone's home, will rent a bus this time. We'll have to see what they've decided to imprint on their t-shirts. Last year they read, "Nothing is impossible."