ROME -- Sara Errani is all smiles in her return to Rome. The only Italian woman to have contested the Internazionali BNL d'Italia final in the past 35 years waves to old friends and reminisces about old times. She even enjoys a few jokes at her own expense.
"Two days ago with my coach, I asked, 'What if myself of 10 years ago played against me now, what do you think?'" Errani said. "He said, 'Easy for you of 10 years ago!'"
Errani laughs at this idea. A decade ago, she was at the height of her powers, reaching the 2013 Roland Garros final and hitting World No.5 later that year. Now, at the age of 36, she beams simply returning to the Top 100 again, which she did in March after nearly five years.
"For three, four years I was around 103, 104," Errani said. "I was thinking a lot about being back in the Top 100 and I was near, I was near but I couldn't. I did it more for me. It was a personal goal. And now I did what I wanted to do, so now I'm going to enjoy it more than I did the last time."
The concept of joy comes up a lot with Errani. She remembers her first visit to the Foro Italico as a 6-year-old, running courtside to get Mary Pierce's autograph. But her motivation to make tennis her career came not from watching others but from the enjoyment she felt on the court herself.
But Errani's career has also been marked by struggles. In 2016, she described her best virtue as "the acceptance of suffering," referring to injuries but also to the formidable task of being a 5-foot-5 player facing down the modern era's proponents of "big babe tennis."
Since then, there's been even more to overcome. In 2017, she failed a doping test. Errani served a suspension for negligence after her account was accepted by the ITF tribunal. She felt her federation had turned its back on her, and when she returned, she was plagued by serving yips that forced her to serve underarm for long passages of play.
"It was tough, and a lot of it was mental," Errani said. "I worked with a psychologist. There was a lot of fear, I was afraid to serve and I understood that. Many players were in that situation, like [Elena] Dementieva.
"Guillermo Coria even stopped tennis because of it. I wanted to still have fun with tennis, and I understood that I had to go over that situation, even if it was making me suffer so much. It happens to me when there are nerves or bad situations but I try to affrontare, to pass through it.
"If you want to enjoy things, you have to pass through the bad situations."
Errani describes match play as "a mix of tension and nerves," and says she finds more enjoyment in practicing. But the pleasure in competition comes from her tactical way to overcome the odds.
The 2013 Dubai final against Petra Kvitova was a memorable example. Errani lost 6-2, 1-6, 6-1. She was overpowered in the first set, but switched to a serve-and-volley game in the second.
"The court was really fast and I could not win one point from the baseline," Errani said. "I tried to do something different, and just like that, I won one set. It was not enough, but it was nice to find another way. I just love to try to find that way.
"I love to think about what I have to do. I have to try to find a tactic to win the matches, not only hit the ball. Normally the day before or in the morning I watch video of the other player, and I talk with my coach a lot about how I want the points to be. I like to be ready in how I prepare for the match."
These days, Errani is aware that her career is winding down. She's the last active player of Italy's golden generation, the 'Fab Four' of Errani, former doubles partner Roberta Vinci, Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone. (They still have dinner regularly, and Errani greets a passing Pennetta enthusiastically.)
Errani is at the point in her career in which newer players like Sara Sorribes Tormo regard her as an idol.
Though Errani says she doesn't think too much about hanging up her racquets, she knows she only has "one or two years" left.
"I don't have a goal anymore, really," Errani said. "In my head, I want to try to enjoy, to have more good memories. I'm playing because I love tennis and I love being on court. Until I can, I think I'm going to do this."
There's the opportunity to make more good memories this week. Errani takes on Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round, with a second-round tilt at World No.1 Iga Swiatek at stake.
Errani can't resist one last self-deprecating joke, referring to her habit of getting embroiled in long clay-court battles.
"It's always nice to play at home. But not so easy for the Italians!"