Schiavone aims to use clay-court guile as she defends title

The men's and women's competitions here at the French Open have been a marked contrast. While the world's top four men were still in the competition going into yesterday's semi-finals, their female counterparts had departed before the same stage, some as early as last week.

It has become almost de rigueur to knock the women's game, but at least today's singles final will feature a player in all the best traditions of clay-court tennis. Francesca Schiavone may not be everyone's cup of cappuccino, but no other current player knows how to use the surface quite like the 30-year-old Italian, who defends her title this afternoon against China's Li Na.

The trend in the modern game has been for players to adopt much the same tactics whatever the surface. Modern rackets, which can generate so much power, encourage players to rally from the back of the court, striking the ball as hard as possible. Many try to avoid advancing to the net, knowing that they run the risk of being passed or having the poor quality of their volleys exposed. Their sole aim appears to be to keep their opponent pegged behind the baseline with a relentless barrage of ground strokes.

What a pleasure, therefore, to watch Schiavone and her ever-changing mixture of spins, variations of pace, drop shots, net approaches and volleys. At just 5ft 5in tall and barely 10 stone, the world No 5 lacks the physical advantages of some of her Amazonian rivals but more than makes up for that with what goes on inside her head.

"Clay is a mix of everything," Schiavone said yesterday. "You have to be good physically, mentally and tactically. In one point on clay you can defend, attack, go to the net and then defend again. It's a good mix. To keep going you need to use the mind, the heart, the body, everything that you are." While Li is more of a baseline slugger, Schiavone should not underestimate the 29-year-old world No 7, who is attempting to become the first Asian to win a major title.

Like Schiavone, Li has blossomed late in her career but has been making up for lost time. She believes she benefited from the experience of her first Grand Slam final at this year's Australian Open, where she lost to Kim Clijsters in three sets. "I come to the court more confident," Li said. "You have to believe you can do it."

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