By Martyn Herman
PARIS, May 28 (Reuters) - Svetlana Kuznetsova and Francesca Schiavone have got history when it comes to tennis marathons and the two claycourt warriors were at it again at the French Open on Thursday.
Out on the so-called Bullring, a claustrophobic circular arena tucked away at the edge of Roland Garros, the two former French Open champions produced the best women’s match of the tournament, going toe-to-toe like a couple of middleweight boxers before Italian Schiavone finally prevailed 7-6(11) 5-7 10-8 in 10 minutes under four hours.
It fell a way short of the four hours and 44 minutes it took Schiavone to beat Kuznetsova 16-14 in the deciding set at the Australian Open in 2011 -- a grand slam record for a women’s match -- but it more than matched it for intensity.
The 2009 champion Kuznetsova served for the match four times from 5-4 in a gripping deciding set but each time the wily 34-year-old Schiavone, the oldest player to reach the second round, refused to buckle and broke back.
Kuznetsova had a solitary match point when Schiavone served at 5-6 but could do nothing as her opponent unleashed a winner with her single-handed backhand -- the magic shot that played such a role in her 2010 title in Paris.
“For a one-handed backhand to play it like that down the line, she totally went for it and all credit to her,” 18th seed Kuznetsova said once she got her breath back.
Both players were out on their feet, chalk dust caked to their calves and Schiavone sat down on a line judge’s chair for a quick breather at 8-8 before springing back to finally hold serve after the players had traded nine consecutive breaks.
And when her chance finally came after hanging on for so long she made no mistake, an enthralling contest ending when Kuznetsova dinked a volley into the net.
“You fight, you fight, and then you are reaching the mountain top, then you go down again and you fight and go up. It’s tough,” Schiavone, at nearly 35 the oldest woman in the second round, told reporters.
”With Svetlana I think we can play hours and hours and hours because we know each other exactly.
“She is amazing, and every time I play against her I say, Oh, my God, now what can happen?”
Schiavone, whose sound effects when she strikes the ball range from a kind of high-pitched donkey to a karate chop yelp, has slipped to 92nd in the world rankings.
But for a while on Thursday she rolled back the years.
“I don’t know how much of magic there is left,” she said.
“But there is still inside me something.” (editing by Justin Palmer)