FIUMICINO, Italy - One of the most long-standing tournaments on the WTA Tour, the Internationaux de Strasbourg boasts former winners such as Stefanie Graf, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati on its roll of honor.
But no player has as much of a tie to the event as Silvia Farina, who completed a consecutive hat-trick of titles in the French city, located near the German border and the site of the European Parliament, between 2001 and 2003.
Farina's triptych of trophies, which she still displays proudly in the main room of her house in Fiumicino, near Rome, is a tournament record, held jointly with Anabel Medina Garrigues (champion in 2005, 2007 and 2008) - but they were all the more remarkable for their context in the Italian's career. Having reached her first WTA final in San Marino in 1991 at the age of 19, Farina would lose that in an all-Italian affair to Katia Piccolini - and then, over the next decade, reach and lose a further six finals.
Still titleless at the age of 29, she returned to Strasbourg in 2001 for just the second time in her career - and proceeded to go on a 17-match winning streak there, only halted by Davenport in the 2004 semifinals. Along the way, Farina - then competing under her married name of Farina Elia - would defeat the likes of Anastasia Myskina, Nathalie Tauziat and Magdalena Maleeva - and each of her finals was a thrilling three-set victory over a sometime Top 20 player: Anke Huber in 2001, Jelena Dokic in 2002 and Karolina Sprem in 2003.
But Farina's spell of invincibility almost never happened. In 2001, competing in Strasbourg was a last resort after a disappointing clay season that had not lived up to expectations after she had reached the Gold Coast final and Indian Wells quarterfinals earlier in the year. "I was so down mentally," she recalls via Zoom.
"I came from a time when I was not winning a match, and I decided to go to Strasbourg alone, without my coach, to find a solution. To try to not have any kind of pressure from the outside." It nearly didn't pay off. In the first round, Farina - the No.8 seed - faced the Australian World No.75 Evie Dominikovic, whom she had dispatched 6-1, 6-3 in Indian Wells two months previously. On her preferred clay, though, things would not be so simple. "I was 0-5 down in the third set," she says. "I was already in the shower. But I saved three match points. There was no magic: I still had to play every point after that. I somehow won - and match by match, I found a better feeling. I don't know how come, because on the first day I was terrible!"
Farina's desire to escape external pressure was no surprise. Between 1995 and 1999, she had ended every year as the Italian No.1, and her profile only rose higher after she cracked the Top 20 in 1998, a year in which she made WTA finals in Auckland, Budapest, Warsaw and Luxembourg. "I had a lot of pressure from Italian journalists and people in tennis," she admits. "Always asking, how come you can't win a tournament? Every time I had to play a final, I had to think about this. It was very important for me to break this streak - when I finished the last point in 2001, I thought, finally I did it! It was magical."
Was there anything about the Strasbourg tournament that enabled Farina to feel calmer? She remembers it as a relaxed, friendly event with many children around the club. "It was not a big tournament, but it was very nice. The people were very welcoming to me, and a lot of fans came to support me. It was very close to the pretty old town, and there was good food - that was perfect." There's only one negative memory - an unsurprising one for northern Europe in May. "The weather conditions, not so much," grimaces Farina. "It was very windy, and it also rained a lot."
But Strasbourg's timing would prove to be an accidental boon. Farina says that she usually felt in her best physical condition during April and May, and trailed off later in the year. This never paid off in her home tournament of Rome, though, where she reached the quarterfinals only once, in 2004 - her penultimate appearance there - defeating Maria Sharapova before falling in a tight three-setter to Amélie Mauresmo, her finest Foro Italico memory.
"Rome was a difficult tournament for me," she says. "Every time playing in front of my public was special - but I didn't play my best tennis there ever. I always prepared well physically and technically, hitting a good ball in practice, but there was a lot of pressure mentally. I played my best tennis in Strasbourg the next week!"
Heading straight for Strasbourg after the intensity of Rome turned out to be perfect. "I felt - ah! I don't have this pressure any more," Farina says, exhaling. "And my tennis was in good shape. Maybe that was the key." It was also the key to rediscovering her stride on an even bigger stage: both of Farina's career-best fourth-round runs at Roland Garros, in 2001 and 2002, followed a Strasbourg title.
"To go to a Grand Slam with a lot of matches under my belt was perfect for me," explains Farina, who says she never felt any danger of a physical let-down and points out that the same held true at the other majors: a run to the 2004 Canberra final presaged her first appearance in the fourth round of the Australian Open, while an Eastbourne semifinal in 2003 foreshadowed her only Grand Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon that year.
Like many of her compatriots - including the Italian 'Fab Four' who flew the Tricolore at the top of the game over the past 15 years - Farina was a late bloomer par excellence: all of her titles and all of her seven Grand Slam second week showings came after she turned 29, and she hit her career high of World No.11 in May 2002 one month after she turned 30. Part of that she ascribes to the influence of her coach and husband at the time, Francesco Elia (from whom she has since separated). "He told me a lot to improve my game in all respects: physically, tactically, technically, but especially mentally."
Many of these aspects, feels Farina, would require time to hone anyway. "Personally, I think the Italian mentality means we need a lot of experience," she explains. "We need to mature on tour, we are not the kind of people - this is in all areas of life - who come out very young. For me, the time playing, losing a lot, that helped me to find the best tennis - maybe at the end of my career, but I found it.
"When I was young, for me it was difficult to put everything together. Mentally to be strong, but also a good tactical program. When you go on court, you have to have tactics, because otherwise you just play every point differently and randomly. But also for my kind of game, I needed to work on a lot of tactics against different players - I am not the kind of player who just played in one way, who could have just gone on court and hit the ball. I had a lot of solutions. Against different players I could play in different ways, and it took me a long time to understand this. It was hard for me to find 100% Silvia in everything."
Winning Strasbourg in 2001 had been a crucial step. "It made me believe in myself more, that I could beat everybody on court, even the World No.1," Farina says - an attitude she took into both subsequent title-winning years, even though the circumstances were different. In 2002, she was flying high in what would be her career-best season - and though she admits that she initially "didn't know how to manage the situation" of being defending champion, this pressure quickly dissipated. "The minute I felt again the atmosphere, I forgot I had to defend. I did the same things: play match by match. Before every match, I thought I was 50-50 to win - that was my mentality - so I did not think about who I was playing, I just tried to put my best on court."
By contrast, 2003 saw Farina arrive in Strasbourg on a five-match losing streak and suffering physically. "I started to have a lot of muscle and back problems that year," she recalls. "I went there just to play - not thinking about defending, not to pretend anything. It's difficult to explain how I won again, but it happened!"
Farina, whose game was moulded at 1976 Roland Garros champion Adriano Panatta's tennis school and consequently boasted a stylish one-handed backhand - "When I was a kid, everybody started with one hand!" - made her WTA debut at Taranto in 1989 and played her final match at Hasselt in 2005. Across her long career, she saw "three, four generations of player all coming out" - and was up to the challenge of each of them, scoring victories over champions from Gabriela Sabatini and Conchita Martínez to Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and both Williams sisters. One stands out as a particular challenge: "I played a lot of tough players, but in my best period, I still lost all the time against Kim Clijsters," she laughs. "All the time in the round of 16 at Grand Slams, even the Wimbledon quarterfinal, always Kim again. I could not win one!"
Since retiring, Farina has not returned to Strasbourg: tired of the grind of packing and travelling, she preferred trips around Italy to discover more about her own country before focusing on raising her children. These days, she's found that the ideal way for her to keep in touch with the sport is working in commentary, particularly around the Internazionali BNL d'Italia - but Strasbourg will, she says, always have a "magical" place in her heart.