Melbourne: One of the players was so exhausted she forgot who was serving. The other kept checking the ticking clock on center court and thinking to herself, “Brava, Francesca!”
The clock finally stopped at 4 hours, 44 minutes, when French Open champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4, 1-6, 16-14 in the fourth round at the Australian Open and set a record for the longest women’s Grand Slam match in the Open era.
An exhausted but elated Schiavone described the match as “fantastic!”
Though the 30-year-old Schiavone is at an age when many players are considering retirement, she’s playing the best tennis of her career and making history as goes.
She won the French Open last year at 29, becoming the first Italian to win a major and the oldest woman in four decades to win her first Grand Slam. She also became the oldest woman in 12 years to crack the top 10 for the first time.
With Sunday’s win she set a new personal best, reaching her first Australian Open quarterfinal in 11 tries. She has played in 42 consecutive Grand Slams. She also is expected to rise from her current career-high ranking of No. 6.
“When you’re in a situation like this, I think every point is the most important. It’s like every point is match point. You have to keep going,” she said.
Schiavone saved six match points and closed the final set on her third match point.
“Physically you are tired,” she said. “Mentally it’s the same.”
Schiavone kept fresh by dousing herself with bottled water at game changeovers, pouring it over her head, arms and legs. Both players sought rubdowns from their trainers to ease tight muscles.
The third set was a three-hour marathon, with incredible shots and saves by both players, going more-or-less game for game until Schiavone edged ahead and ended it at a staggering 16-14.
The longest previous women’s match in a Grand Slam tournament was here last year when Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova beat Regina Kulikova 7-6 (5), 6-7 (10), 6-3 in a contest lasting 4:19.
At Roland Garros last year, Schiavone gained a reputation for dropping to the court and kissing the clay, a ritual that started in the quarterfinals and continued through the final.
There was no kissing the ground Sunday night at Melbourne Park.
Schiavone raised both arms to the sky and then walked to the net to hug Kuznetsova, the 2009 French Open champion.
“At some stage, I was like, ‘What’s the score? Who’s serving?’” Kuznetsova said. “I had no clue sometimes. It was so hard to count.”
The 25-year-old Russian beat seven-time Grand Slam winner Justine Henin in straight sets in the third round, which she described as “definitely hard.”
But Sunday’s record-setting match was almost spiritual.
“What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. I’m still alive and sitting here,” said the No. 26-ranked Russian.
“I am a religious person and I believe in God. If he makes me go through this, I will go through this and keep my head high and work even harder. I’m proud of the work I’ve done,” she said.
Schiavone said her focus never strayed, thanks to the on-court clock.
“I was watching the clock. I say, ‘Brava, Francesca! You are tough!” she said.
The Italian expects another challenge when she faces No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals.
Asked if she’ll have the energy for the next round, she smiled, “If you ask me now, I say, ‘No.’”
“But I am young. I can run,” she said. “I can do anything.”