Francesca Schiavone: 'I am known in Italy now – soccer fans cheer me on'

The World No 5's French Open win last year changed her life. Paul Newman hears how she feels to be going back as a celebrity
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The Independent Online

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The Foro Italico, where Italy's biggest tennis tournament was staged last week, is part of the same sporting complex as the Olympic Stadium, where Roma's footballers play. On the day that Milan won the Serie A title by drawing in the Italian capital, Francesca Schiavone, the country's leading tennis player, was leaving the courts just as the football fans were arriving.

"Football here is the first sport, but they were stopping me, congratulating me and saying: 'Can we have a picture?'" Schiavone said. "That's really fantastic for me personally. If that had happened last year a few people who were passionate about tennis might have stopped me, but nowhere near as many." Schiavone's place in the Italian sporting hierarchy was transformed when she became French Open champion last summer. As she prepares to defend her title in Paris next week she understands the weight of expectation that now rests on her shoulders.

Although she has competed at the Rome event every year since 1998, Schiavone had been little more than a bit-part player on her first 13 visits. Last week, however, her matches at the Foro Italico drew huge and passionate crowds. The disappointment at her quarter-final defeat to Sam Stosur, which reversed the result of last year's French Open final, was almost tangible. Dealing with fame is a challenge for any champion, but what has been unusual for Schiavone is the age at which it has arrived. Winning in Paris just 18 days before her 30th birthday, she was the second-oldest first-time Grand Slam champion in the Open era and, at No 17 in the world, the lowest ranked first-time winner for 34 years.

Late fame has been accompanied by late riches. When she arrived at Roland Garros last year Schiavone had won only three titles and just $4.9m (£3m) in prize-money after 14 years on the professional circuit. She left with a winner's cheque for €1.12m (£979,000) and a bonus of €400,000 from her national federation. High-profile commercial deals have followed, including agreements with Longines and the nutrition company Enervit.

From the moment Schiavone took a congratulatory phone call from the Italian president before she had even left the court in Paris, life started to change. "The world wants to know a little more about me now," she said as she sat back in a chair – perhaps weighed down by the enormous Longines watch on her wrist – beneath the Foro Italico's main stadium. "I also have to pay for some more dinners because people say: 'You won the French Open so you have to pay for at least the next 12 months.'"

When Schiavone needs peace and quiet she heads for her mother's hometown of Passirano in the province of Brescia, where she spent weekends as a child. The rest of the time was spent in Milan, where she still shares an apartment with her parents. "I feel really comfortable and at home in Passirano," Schiavone said. "There's not the pressure of life in a big city. It's a small place. My mother grew up there, so everybody knows me through her and through my grandmother."

How does she spend her time when she returns to Passirano? "I rest. I go to the supermarket with my mother to buy something that she can cook for me. I feel like a baby because it's a place where there's a big fire, a sofa and my mother and father are there. There's all the love, all the nice feelings I can find. Nobody asks me strange questions. People just say: 'Can I come to see you to bring you a piece of cake?' It's not: 'Oh, your life must have changed.' It's not tennis, tennis, tennis. They know I play tennis, but they don't know about tennis, so it's much easier to have a relationship with people. We'll just sit down and play cards. It's very simple. We'll have dinner together. It's not about work or business."

What food does she like her mother to prepare? "In Brescia we have a speciality: polenta with crostini. My mother's a great cook. Sometimes when I've been away for a long time and I come back, I go to my mother and I say: 'Give me a good brodo.' It's a kind of soup made with gallina [chicken]."

One of the rare occasions when Passirano was not so peaceful was when Schiavone returned there for the first time after her French Open triumph. "It was amazing," Schiavone recalled. "There were so many people that I couldn't walk to my home. It was fantastic. I saw people I had grown up with, my grandmother, my grandfather. Everyone was enjoying it because they all know me.

"I said to them: 'Thank you for being here. I've always felt fantastic being here. I'm really at home. Thank you for enjoying it with me because you are doing as much for me as I might be doing for you.'"

One of the senior citizens of the tour, Schiavone has always maintained a high level of fitness. At this year's Australian Open she beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 16-14 in the third set after nearly five hours, the longest women's match ever played at a Grand Slam. Two blackened toenails were so painful afterwards that she had to have them treated in the middle of the night, but she still gave everything in another three-set contest in the next round before losing to Caroline Wozniacki, the world No 1.

"It depends on many things, but I think an athlete can't really be the best physically when you're 20 years old," Schiavone said. "Between the ages of 28 and 35 you are at your strongest. Of course when you play a match that lasts several hours it's more difficult to recover." She has changed her fitness programme in recent years. "Before, all my work used to take much longer," she said. "Now my work is shorter and more explosive. I do sprints and I've also done weights. I look strong, don't I?"

Although she helped Italy retain the Fed Cup, Schiavone has often struggled to live up to her Roland Garros exploits. Her best subsequent performance was a run to the semi-finals in Tokyo last autumn. She will slip a long way from her present position at No 5 in the world rankings if she loses early in Paris. "I think my tennis is coming match by match," she said. "I haven't played a lot on clay and I've lost many matches. I haven't really found the rhythm to be able to say: 'OK, this is good.' I'm working a lot on the practice court, but it's not just forehands and backhands that make a difference. It's how you are on the court, how you hit the ball, how you feel the pressure and the tension, how you feel your body in that moment."

Schiavone regards herself, Stosur, Kuznetsova, Wozniacki and Vera Zvonareva as the main contenders in Paris this year but says that winning on the women's tour is becoming harder. "It's not like it was before. The young players are strong physically. They don't care about anything. They are really hard. To get to No 1 in the world and to stay there isn't as easy as it was before." Would winning the title be more difficult than first time around? "I don't know. How can I know? I think it will be very tough. But I know I have the quality, and that's a good step and a way to start."