Patty vs Mara Santangelo - match report from Charleston 3R
Schnyder d Santangelo 36 76(2) 63, Apr 13 2006.
This was probably one of the best matches played on the stadium court in the last couple of years in terms of entertainment value. It was my first time seeing Mara Santangelo and she has a VERY unorthodox game. From the first point of the match, she was playing serve-and-volley and it obviously took Patty completely by surprise. Santangelo is six feet tall and very thin and rangy, with a huge wingspan and she was all over the net early in this match, saving a breakpoint in the opening game with a crushing overhead smash before holding serve with a fantastic low volley off a passing shot. Patty seemed thrown off by Mara's great and unusual shots from the opening game, and hit a double-fault and a wild long forehand to lose her own serve, then Santa consolidated the break in the next game with several more effective serve-volley points to lead 3-0. Patty managed to hold serve for the rest of the set but she was having a terrible time returning Santangelo's first serve, it wasn't that Mara was hitting ace bombs, Patty just couldn't seem to read it and repeatedly shanked her backhand returns every which way. When the ball was in play Santa was slapping her flat forehand into the corners almost without any errors.
In the second set it was more of the same. Even though Patty had a lot of support from the late morning crowd, which was now filling up the stadium on a perfect day for tennis, she couldn't seem to get herself going and respond to the surprising attacking style of Santangelo. Instead of focusing on her own game, which on clay has the potential to dismantle flat hitters, Patty seemed to be trying to play Mara's game, hitting her own forehand flat and wanting to finish the points with one shot instead of taking as many shots as she needed. Patty was just erratic, lacking patience and seemed slower to the ball than in past years. She wasn't hitting her second serve, normally one of the game's best, with the usual authority and confidence. Meanwhile Patty continued to put on a clinic on how NOT to hit a two-handed backhand, spraying the shot everywhere but in the court. Even after hitting a spectacular dig slice passing shot, for which she had to run diagonally from deep in her forehand corner all the way up the net, to a roar from the crowd, Patty still was moping around the court, looking resigned to losing.
Santangelo seemed to be in the zone. She was having great success taking Patty's crosscourt backhands and clobbering her own forehand down the line for a flat winner. She must have used this play about 15 times in the first two sets. She made a diving volley off an excellent forehand pass from Patty to save a break point early in the second set and Patty just looked completely deflated. At 2-4 down in the second set, Patty's back was to the wall and she looked resigned to defeat. Patty managed to hold serve for 3-4 but it wasn't looking good. In the next game she finally got a couple of passing shots by Santa to earn a break point. As Mara stepped up to serve at 30-40 somebody from the crowd yelled loudly VAMOS PATTY! And i don't know if it was karma, but Mara's serve clipped the tape and landed millimeters wide for a doublefault to give Patty her first break of the match. Still, Patty's reaction was rather subdued. She looked shaky but held serve for 5-4, helped by a couple of missed service returns.
I don't know what happened during the changeover, but the Patty Schnyder who came out to play the 10th game of the second set was like a different person. Suddenly the player who reached the semifinals on this court 3 of the last 4 years was on court - bouncing, energetic, gliding fluidly on the green clay, swinging freely and powerfully on her forehand side and no longer shanking backhands. Santa played a good service game to make it 5-5 all, but i was sitting there thinking "what the hell just happened?" The crowd's energy suddenly began to reach a crescendo and they were really behind her now to take it to a 3rd set. Patty played a rock-solid service game for 6-5, hitting one of her trademark heavy-topspin forehand winners after opening up the court in a long rally. Mara hung tough and tied it at 6-6, screaming FORZA! FORZA! from the net right at Patty, when Patty's backhand passing shot caught the top of the tape on game point. In the tiebreaker, Patty hit a crazy change-up wide kick serve for an ace on the 1st point, and a couple of other effective shots to take a 4-0 lead. Santa came back to 4-2, and then had an easy overhead and hit it hard but right at Patty, who smacked a reflex backhand pass crosscourt to bring the crowd to its feet. She won the set on an exchange with both players at the net, when Santangelo tried to float a lob over Patty's head but sent it just long.
There was a 10-minute heat break and then Mara held serve to start the 3rd set, but Patty's game was really on now, she had several thousand people supporting her, and i had the feeling she was out of danger. Santangelo looked a little bit discouraged and some errors started to creep into her volleying, which had been flawless all day. Patty's backhand return game had gone from atrocious, to not missing anything, and the extra pressure elicited some doublefaults from her opponent. In this set Patty showed the kind of tennis that has earned her accolades from people all over the sport, displaying a positive, workmanlike attitude, fluid movement, and brilliant shotmaking instinct. Everything was suddenly just there. It's hard to describe but it's fun to watch. You don't know how long it's going to last so you just have to enjoy it while it's there, and that's what the FCC fans did.
Santangelo hung tough and saved breakpoints to keep it close, and at 4-3 Patty got down a breakpoint and the girls played the longest rally of the day, 21 shots of corner to corner running, before Santangelo missed an aggressive backhand attempt just wide and Patty got out of trouble. Mara slammed her racket to the ground after missing a volley off of a Patty passing shot to lose the game.
In the last game Patty came back from 0-30 down to get match point. Santangelo approached the net with a crosscourt backhand and Patty ripped a clean forehand pass down the line to win it to a roar from the crowd. It was gratifying in a way for me to see a player that has gotten so little attention over the years reach a point in her career where she's a favorite at this tournament and a headlining player. Somebody had hung a big COME ON PATTY banner over the terrace and Patty went over and waved a thank you to them as she was leaving the court. After this match, nobody was complaining about Pierce or Davenport or the Williams not being there. This was great tennis from both players.