The red clay of Roland Garros serves as a canvas for tennis' most creative forces. In a time where many women in the top 10 trade baseline blasts that look like yellow blotches in a paint-ball war, Patty Schnyder prefers to paint picturesque points with the fine-eyed control of an artist yielding a brush.
The left-handed Swiss scored a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Korea's Yoon Jeong Cho today to advance to the second round of Roland Garros where she will take on Germany's Sandra Kloesel. Schnyder will carry a 31-11 record into the second round. Schnyder's sense of touch, superb court sense, willingness to vary depth and height and her innate ability to alternate the spins and speeds of her shots can confound top 10 opponents accustomed to playing power baseline games. The 26-year-old Schnyder, who hails from Basel, Switzerland the same hometown as another supremely-skilled racquet wizard named Roger Federer, has beaten several current and former top 10 players this year including Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova, two-time Grand Slam finalist Elena Dementieva, Roland Garros champion Anastasia Myskina, reigning U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and two-time French Open finalist Kim Clijsters.
Although Schnyder is seeded eighth at Roland Garros where her best result was a quarterfinal finish in 1998, if the stars align just right and the draw breaks her way, Schnyder could make a run to the Roland Garros final.
Remember it wasn’t until Amelie Mauresmo found her "sixth gear" (to quote a phrase from former pro and current coach Jeff Tarango of Tennis Wizards.com) in the third set of the Telecom Italia Masters final that she denied Schnyder the Rome title with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory.
Despite the defeat, Schnyder's surge to the final capped a momentous week that saw her break back into the WTA tour top 10 for the first time in six years. After the match, I caught up with Patty in Rome and asked: "If you could have one of these two wishes which would you choose: to become number one in the world for a bit? Or to win a slam like the French Open?
A smiling Schnyder did not have to take time to consider the question: "Definitely, if I had a choice I would choose to win a Slam like the French!" Schnyder replied.
Although Italian tennis fans were enjoying her artistic, creative performance throughout the week in Rome, Schnyder soared below the media radar in conducting clay-court clinics that culminated with straight-sets victories over rising young talents Anna-Lena Groenefeld, Ana Ivanovic and Evgenia Linetskaya. Schnyder surrendered just 12 games in those three tournament victories over top 51 ranked opponents.
It was only after Schnyder stopped Maria Sharapova from gaining the No. 1 ranking with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory that she was asked to conduct a press conference in Rome.
While her victory over Sharapova generated global attention, interested observers have been watching Schnyder with interest since she scored successive wins over Tatiana Golovin and Samantha Stosur to capture her ninth career title on the Gold Coast of Australia. Anyone who witnessed Schnyder score a 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 over a zoning Stosur in the Gold Coast final could see that something very special was happening in the evolution of her game.
Three significant patterns caught my eye in that final.
The first was that Stosur was serving as big as any woman on the tour, but Patty was still able to handle the big blasts by using her anticipation and hand speed to rip consistently deep returns. The second was that the pace and placement of Schnyder's serve was at a new level that resulted in easier service holds than perhaps in the past. Finally, in the crucial rallies, Schnyder often turned defensive positions into offensive ones by using Stosur's pace against her with imaginative angles.
Maintaining the momentum she gained from her first tournament title since Zurich in 2002, Schnyder beat two-time Grand Slam finalist Elena Dementieva, 6-7(6), 7-6(4), 6-2, to advance to the Australian Open quarterfinals before bowing to Nathalie Dechy.
A semifinalist in Dubai, Charleston and Berlin, Schnyder believes she is playing the best tennis of her career as she begins this French Open fortnight. The day before her semifinal victory over Sharapova, I sat down with a relaxed Patty and her husband and coach Rainer Hofmann to conduct this interview as they were enjoying the pine-scented night air on the players' dining deck overlooking the courts at the historic Foro Italico. For more on Patty's Rome results, please visit Patty Schnyder.com
Question: As the tournament continues it’s supposed to get harder but you’re making it look easier. Today you beat the talented Evgenia Linetskaya allowing her only one game. Are you playing the best tennis of your career?
Patty: Yeah, I guess I am. Everything feels good. I feel mentally strong. I’m happy with how everything is coming together.
Question: You mention the word "feel" often. What is it that you mean by that?
Patty: More than ever now, I can feel the court. I can feel a good timing with the ball. I can feel my opponents during a match. I think a lot of the feel can come out of instinct.
Question: Linetskya has shown she can go ground stroke to ground stroke with the best, but you didn’t let her get her groove. What was happening? What could have she done better?
Patty: People forget that even with talent that experience is an important part of the game. She will become more dangerous with more experience — if she can learn from her losses. She can also improve her serve, both first and second serve.
Question: In your match tomorrow, Sharapova is closing in on number one in the world, and is the favorite here. If you play the same as today do you think you have a good chance to upset?
Patty: Yes, I have a chance, if I play like today. The key will be the serve. If her percentage of first serves is high it’ll be tough. The only other time I played her was before Wimbledon and it was close in the third set. I have to serve well too. I have to do it again against Maria.
Question: Can you comment about your strategy against Sharapova tomorrow?
Patty: Sure, if she's serving well, I would like to return safe then begin to go for chances as the point develops. I want to keep it safer at the beginning like returning deep up the middle and then working the point before going for more risky shots.
Question: Are you going to try and attack Maria’s second serve?
Patty: (Smiles then laughs) No, I don’t thinks she going to give me a chance, her second serve is pretty strong too.
Question: Patty, what do you like about this tournament? Did you have a chance to visit the city and sights?
Patty: Yes, we went around a lot yesterday and really enjoyed touring the Vatican City. This tournament is nice too. Each year the crowds are getting bigger. The more the fans like our play, it inspires me play better. It's fun when the crowd gets into it.
Question: What would you say if you had a moment to say something to all the kids in Italy and in the world about how to be successful on the court and successful in life?
Patty: I would tell them to have fun with whatever you are doing. Nothing really gets easier. So to be successful you have to learn to have fun and enjoy the process.
Question: Are you going to have fun in the semifinals tomorrow?
Patty: Yes, of course I will. Thank you.
True to her word, Schnyder played with a sense of joy in the semifinals and made life miserable in the third set for Sharapova.
A shrewd Schnyder angled her left-handed kick serve wide on the ad side to stretch Sharapova into the doubles alley and revisit the red-clay real estate with winners into the open court. Sharapova shares a similar style with the woman she’s trying to displace from the top spot — Lindsay Davenport — both favor an aggressive baseline power game fueled by fast, flat strokes and a willingness to drive for the lines. It’s a style that has been successful on most surfaces, but one that can stall on clay-courts where opponents can run down would-be winners and whip topspin replies that force Sharapova to retrieve.
Following Schnyder's dramatic three-set win over Sharapova, I ran into WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott in the Hall of Champions and asked for his assessment of Patty's game.
"I think Patty played clever, crafty clay-court tennis," Scott said. "Patty is always thinking out there. She played smart, using many creative shots. She has a lot of variety, loopy top spins, short angles, drop shots — whatever was needed at the time. She is fun to watch."
Schnyder can be a spectacular shotmaker, but is she a legitimate Grand Slam contender?
ESPN analyst and former French Open mixed doubles champion Mary Carillo believes Schnyder has the tools to trouble top players, but that asking Schnyder to tame her nerve and produce the seven consecutive victories it takes to win a major is asking too much.
"She's very talented. She hasn't hit a ball the same way twice," Carillo said. "There's a lot of art to her game, a lot of whimsy to her game. Becuase she's so different — she's no garden variety player at all — she can frustrate a lot of players who are used to a flatter, meatier ball than the one she serves up. I've never seen her play seven good matches in a row. In a one-week event, where she doesn't have to get seven wins, I have a lot more confidence in her. I think nerves have always played a part with her and she doesn't look as fit as she needs to be. If she wins the French, I'd be surprised — not because she lacks the talent, but because she lacks the discipline necessary to win seven matches."
Another player seeking a major breakthrough in Paris — the third-seeded Mauresmo — said Schnyder's ability to change the pace and locate her shots into the most extreme corners of the court makes her the most dangerous type of spin doctor.
"She has a very special game, not like most of the other players," Mauresmo said. "She uses a lot of spins and slicing. She is able to do many different things, and we don’t see those kinds of players very often."
Other dark horses we’ll be watching include 9th-seeded Vera Zvonareva, 21st-seeded Mary Pierce, 15th-seeded Jelena Jankovic, 20th-seeded Daniela Hantuchova and 2004 Wimbledon junior finalist Ana Ivanovic.
Winning a Grand Slam is a unique combination of desire, preparation, confidence, support and a little luck. History shows that one of the biggest factor must be the level of "zone play" prior a targeted event. How about a few thoughts about some of the top seeds?
Venus’ results in Istanbul shows that she’s bringing some momentum. Mauresmo’s victory in Rome on clay a little faster than Roland Garros makes her an obvious favorite to go deep into the second week. Mauresmo's Italian Open victory may be proof that she has conquered her nerves.
Although Lindsay Davenport is the top seed, the slow clay will take some sting out of her big shots while decreasing Lindsay’s ability to take those important first few steps. Roland Garros is the only major Davenport has yet to win and it will be difficult for her to complete a career Grand Slam during this French fortnight.
Sharapova is understandably a high seed. She has the serve and the weapons to knock anyone off the court. The questions in our mind are: Is her fitness there for the long matches? Is she growing some needed patience? And now that she has the attention and bank account, does she still have enough fire in her belly?
Most experts agree that 2003 champion Justine Henin-Hardenne is the logical favorite with her compelling combination of being a Grand Slam champion and carrying a 17-match winning streak with three clay-court championships to her credit. And we agree Justine can do it especially if Kim Clijsters' strained right knee does not withstand the rigors of a potentially grueling two-week period of match play on clay.
Watching the drama of the lower seeds meeting the higher seeds are just as exciting as the final — you just have to watch a little closer to see the drama.
Don Sand has been traveling the WTA Tour and working with players and coaches in open platforms called Tennis Angels and the Samurai coaches.
people say mary carillo is an idiot but i've never really heard much from her but to say patty is not fit enough has to mean she is a moron as patty is surely one of the fittest and fastest girls on tour.