NEW YORK, NY, USA - A warm breeze blew through the terrace beneath Arthur Ashe Stadium, a court on which former World No.4 Francesca Schiavone once stepped to the line to take on Jennifer Capriati and Venus Williams.
Schiavone, who announced her retirement from professional tennis Wednesday afternoon, played tennis to convey what one cannot with words. Where others love the game, the Roland Garros champion gave love through the game, winning eight WTA titles and fans across the globe.
"I am enjoying this moment," she tells me. The world goes on around us, yet she is focused, speaking softly and moving her hands in rhythm with the elements.
"Everyone loves me, and I didn’t know this. I just discovered it. I’m welcomed here, by the WTA, in the locker room. Everyone is happy to see me, so that’s a good feeling."
That love is all around her, coming around every corner to greet her. Fellow former WTA stars Daniela Hantuchova and Barbara Schett stop to give her hugs. She high-fives coach Sascha Bajin after his charge Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since Kimiko Date in 1996.
It's the sort of challenge Schiavone herself, now 38, hopes to one day overcome with a pupil of her own - perhaps with one of the several she currently coaches in Miami, or with another some day at home in Italy.
"I love to coach. I don’t know why. I shouldn’t! I wish I didn’t want to do it, but I was born to stay on the court and, we say, ‘to be dirty’ on the court. This is the dirty part of this sport. The management, or something far away from the court and the suffering and where we give everything, it’s not my party."
Win or lose, Schiavone's matches were celebrations, both of the warrior archetypes that draw people to tennis, and a surrender to the ecstasy of life itself. At 5'5", she soared with every shot, leaping off the ground and flinging forth her soul into every heavy forehand, each innately struck backhand slice.
"I always felt a big passion, big love. I loved always to fight, and have a challenge. The challenge brings you to push forward, and go through limits, through fantastic, and even bad things. Frustrations are always right behind the door in this sport."
At the forefront of a golden generation of Italian players, Schiavone won three Fed Cup titles alongside Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani, and Roberta Vinci - all of whom reached major finals and cracked the Top 10, all of whom with tennis that were lighthouses against a growing wave of power players.
"We had success because we were different. It’s not just forehand and backhand; it’s touch, it’s tactics, and strategy. You have to find the solution when there is a problem. It’s always about going through something where sometimes you understand what’s going on, and sometimes not. It’s a mix of talent, and big work."
Her crowning glory, of course, came on the terre battue in 2010 - when she became the first Italian women to win a Grand Slam title - but it opened the door on all that Schiavone had kept inside through the earlier part of her career.
"I remember we were very close, but I could feel that this moment was mine," she recalled, eyes aglow as she revisited the second set tie-break that took her to the title. "I could feel that my tactic was the right one, that I had to keep going in that direction, and this would produce good results."
She reached a second US Open quarterfinal that same year with the help of an audacious tweener on the old Grandstand court, and played rival Svetlana Kuznetsova to 16-14 in the third to match that result at the 2011 Australian Open. All of that was a mere preamble for what she would do in her return to Paris, making it back to the final with a back-to-back epics over Jelena Jankovic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
These are not the emotions one can simply shut off, not even when a career has come to an end.
"My heart still beats for this sport. I will find a way to express myself, not just inside, but outside, so I can transmit some good stuff, and fight in a different way."
An athlete and competitor, Schiavone is ultimately an artist, stepping back on the 20-year fresco that has been her career, speaking with the voice of a poet as she takes one last look back.
"I’ll miss the routine that I had. You wake up in the morning, knowing what you have to do. You’re going through something that is pain and something that is beautiful. It’s always a mix of beautiful and bad things. This, I always loved."
She ends by warmly encouraging players to follow their bliss, and goes forth to celebrate, to spread love, and to accept the challenge of doing both in a new way.