Open champion Schiavone again struggles to get a grip with clay

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The Independent Online

It's been nearly a year since Francesca Schiavone dropped down to kiss the clay court following her memorable French Open victory.

These days, as the Italian prepares to defend her Roland Garros title, she has more of a love-hate relationship with her preferred clay surface.

Schiavone is 2-2 on the crushed red brick this season and struggling to refine her game as she enters this week's Italian Open, where she will face enormous pressure from the home fans as the No 2 seed.

Schiavone acknowledged yesterday that she has had a tough time making the adjustment from hard courts. "I'm having trouble getting my rhythm back," she said. "On clay you've got to be more patient and use much more control. As usual I'm making a very slow transition – that's one of my characteristics."

Schiavone is ranked a career-high fourth in the world, but has a higher seeding this week because the No 2 Kim Clijsters is out injured and No 3 Vera Zvonareva did not enter. With Serena and Venus Williams also out injured, local fans are hoping Schiavone can become the first Italian to win at the Foro Italico since Raffaella Reggi in 1985.

Schiavone has the highest seeding for an Italian here since Adriano Panatta was seeded No 1 in 1977, when he lost to Vitas Gerulaitis in the quarter-finals.

"That's very nice, but it's also a big responsibility and carries a lot of pressure," Schiavone said when told about the seeding statistic. "What really pleases me is that the fans are excited to see me play. That's great motivation."

Schiavone's best previous results here were three quarter-final appearances, the first coming 10 years ago when she was ranked 72nd and came through qualifying, then also in 2004 and 2005.

"I love this city and this tournament and I hope I'm able to play my best," Schiavone said, her voice already half gone as she attends to all the various functions that await the top local players at their home tournament. "This is where I got my first wild card and as a young player that was very special. I have great memories here."

Schiavone has a first-round bye, then will open against either Peng Shuai of China or a qualifier.

Schiavone's French Open win made her the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam title, and she also created some history in January when she beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4, 1-6, 16-14 in the fourth round at the Australian Open to set the record for the longest women's Grand Slam match in the Open era. Battling exhaustion, she then won the opening set before bowing out to top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki in the quarter-finals.

Since then, Schiavone's results have not been as impressive. While she was a key member of the team that won the title the past two years, Schiavone skipped Italy's loss to Russia in the Fed Cup semi-finals last month so she could better prepare for the clay-court season. Still, she lost to Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round in Stuttgart, Germany, then was beat by Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the third round in Madrid last week.

"It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I know I can play better," said the Milan resident. I've been playing at 30 or 40 per cent. I've got to have more focus and be reactive on every point. I'm really trying to raise my level."

Schiavone has no physical problems to blame. "No, it's just that in tennis, like in everyday life, you can't be at your best every day," she said. "My aim is simply to try my best every day."

For months, Schiavone has also been trying to deflect questions about what it will be like to return to Roland Garros as the defending champion, with the Paris tournament now two weeks away. "Everywhere I go they ask me that, and I'm just trying to focus on one day at a time," she said. "When we get there then we can talk about that. Let me stay focused on the task at hand now."