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Looking back at a marathon match

by Alexandra Willis
Wednesday 11 January 2012

When compiling the matches and moments of 2011, it was perhaps difficult to stretch the little grey cells as far back as January. But to forget about it entirely would be an oversight. For Melbourne Park played host to one of the matches of the year, a record-breaking nail-chewer between Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

The fourth-round match-up between the two French Open champions was not on many peoples' lists as a must-watch event. Two relative grandmas of the game, stealing a spot on Hisense Arena above some other more fiery folk, like Tomas Berdych and Fernando Verdasco, for example.

Almost five hours later, the flabbergasted spectators had their answer. "I hope they've got the wheelchair ready," deadpanned the commentator on Australia's Channel 7 as Schiavone and Kuznetsova staggered around the bright blue court, eventually finishing 16-14 in Schiavone's favour after four hours and 44 minutes of high quality blows.

It was the longest women's Grand Slam match in history, not on the scale of the John Isner v Nicolas Mahut Wimbledon epic, but comparable in its sheer stomach-wrenching 'any minute this could be over and yet it's still going' air of drainedness.

Without waxing overly lyrical, the Italian is an extraordinary tennis player. She is far too small to be a threat on serve, and yet she can hit unreturnable serves. She looks like her 30-year-old body will give up the ghost at any moment, practically punch-drunk between points, and yet, she would never, ever stop. “I was returning, but I say, Oh, oh, oh, I can’t stop,” she said about one point in particular, that had her careering and belly-flopping into the net. She was too small to jump over it.

The forehand wields up and over the head atop her diminutive frame in a manner much like Rafa’s. The backhand springs off her left arm with none of the grace or poise or beauty of Justine Henin's famous stroke, but bizarre effectiveness, grabbing it out of the air from up around her chin and somehow getting it to land in the court.

Kuznetsova on the other hand is generally agreed to be one of the most naturally gifted of her generation, she doesn’t need to think where to bury the ball, she just does it. She has pace, she has power. And she’s won two Grand Slam titles as a result. Granted, those have been two very high spots on an otherwise discombobulated career.

Bizarrely, it was Schiavone that started better. The Italian had arrived in Melbourne nursing a groin injury courtesy of the Hopman Cup in Perth, and, to be honest, had looked like she might not survive one match at Melbourne Park, let alone four. But then that is the way she looked in Paris last year, and we all know who was the one smothered in red clay at the end of it.

The Italian grabbed the early break against Kuznetsova with a typically bamboozling backhand, and, despite serving for the set at 5-3 only to fumble, she broke the Russian again to take the first set 6-4. If Schiavone can do anything exceptionally, it is run until her big heart stops beating, and Kuznetsova’s mistake was to allow her the chance to run. So that was the first set. Just 50-odd minutes.

The second set was, according to the scoreline, a master of strokes by Kuznetsova. Finding the power that seems to seep almost languidly from her frame, she blistered through it 6-1. Although that also took 50-0dd minutes. There were lots of deuces.

The third? 30 games. 180 minutes. Three hours. As an observant colleague pointed out, Caroline Wozniacki had time to apologise for kangaroo-gate (and that’s another story), go to the cinema and still come back in time to see which player she would face in the quarterfinals.

It was not a final set in the manner of the Isner-Mahut serving spectacular. It was not a case of just waiting for one player to break serve and that would be it. On the contrary, there were no less than nine breaks of serve in the final set. What Mahut would have given for one of those.

Really, the match should have been Kuznetsova’s. Her first three match points came at 8-7, 0-40 on the Italian’s serve. A done deal, you might think. But Schiavone clung on with the very, very edges of her fingernails. Neither could make the breakthrough.

“At some stage I was like, what’s the score?,” said Kuznetsova, typically managing to make the whole thing sound like a comedy sketch. “Who’s serving? I was like, what’s going on anyway here? I had no clue sometimes. It was so hard to count. I was like, who is up? She? Me?”

The clock ticked on, passing the four hours and 19 minutes of the previous ladies’ Grand Slam record (Strycova d. Kulikova 1R Australian Open 2010), and all the trainers, physios and support teams watched anxiously like a pit-team beside a Formula 1 race track, waiting for their cars to come in and be put back together. They needed them. Schiavone had what looked like an extremely thorough rib massage, Kuznetsova attention to her legs. And yet the Russian started sprinting out of her chair at the changeovers.

It had to end, of course. But against the run of play, against the momentum, against the six match points, against what made sense, it was not in Kuznetsova’s favour. Schiavone broke to lead 15-14, recovered from 0-30 on her serve, and rushed the net on her third match point. That was that. Schiavone won, Kuznetsova lost.

“The match could go either way so many times. I mean, I think it just was really a day of Francesca,” Kuznetsova said. “We both fighted so hard the whole match, and the important moments she just played better. But statistically I also felt like I was better player on the court. I played better. Just very disappointing. Sometimes I guess it happens in tennis like it happened today, that key points, she just won it.”

“You know, one has to win; the other has to lose for sure,” Schiavone said. “But I think we played very high level all the match. But in the third set we give everything. So when we finish, I say Svetlana a really good job and you are great, fantastic. She say the same. We respect a lot each other.”

Despite all of that, and notwithstanding a standing ovation throughout Melbourne Park, it is not the longest women’s match ever played. That honour goes to Vicki Nelson and Jean Harper, who contested a quite frankly absurd six hours and 31 minutes match in 1984, which included a 643-shot rally.

But let the distinction of not being at the absolute top of the record books take anything away from this Australian encounter. It was another reminder of what can happen when two incredible individuals collide in this unfathomable sport.

Check out more of the Australian Open’s memorable moments.

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