WTA Insider David Kane | Former World No.4 Francesca Schiavone is still going strong at 36 years old, discussing her form and plans for the future at the Tashkent Open.
WTA Staff

Francesca Schiavone first came to the Tashkent Open several weeks shy of her 20th birthday. The teenager was ranked outside the Top 100, but stunned top seed Anna Smashnova in the first round en route to her first WTA final.

"It's been nearly 16 years since I was last here," she said in an interview with Sunder Iyer. "I have great memories of Tashkent. The city has changed a lot from what I saw then; it's great to be back."

Schiavone went on to win her first Grand Slam title just over a decade after her initial breakthrough in the Uzbek capital, eventually peaking at No.4 at the start of 2011.

The return to Tashkent is a bittersweet, full circle moment for the 36-year-old, who is once again outside the Top 100 despite a title run at the Rio Open earlier this year. Still, Schiavone showed she still had some magic left with a straight-set upset over No.7 seed Sorana Cirstea.

"This match was a tough one. Sorana is coming back, so I had had to play good tactics and win every point. I played well and feel confident."

Francesca Schiavone

Confidence has been hard to come by for the former French Open champion, who began the year playing qualifying at the Australian Open. Adjusting to the shift in results has admittedly been a process.

"When you are Top 10, it is different level, different money, different services, different satisfaction. As your ranking drops and you are outside Top 100 everything changes in life; the entire system changes and you are no longer as special you were.

"But I love the sport and still enjoy playing."

It was unbridled passion and pure love for the game that brought Schiavone to the top of the sport, and it appears that same love is what keeps her on tour to this day.

"I play because I enjoy it. I'm happy to play tennis - even now. It's tough, and there are some decisions one has to take about their careers sometimes. I decided to continue playing. I would like to thank God for keeping me healthy and allowing me to still play at this level."

Debuting on the WTA tour back in 1996, Schiavone has had a front seat to the radical changes the game has made, noting a far more physical sport than rewards experience over youth.

"One has to play a minimum of 20 shots in a rally. The matches are longer; one has to play for around three hours. Tennis is going faster and faster.

Francesca Schiavone

"A lot of young players used to be around, but today the overall age of players playing the tour is higher. Many players in their 30s are winning matches and events. If one is fit, they all have an opportunity. Players were younger in the sport back then, and were under lot of pressure. There was no time to relax because of the busy schedules and commitments; many of them burnt out.

"But now, I see them taking time to practice, be physically fit, and ensure longevity in the sport, playing for longer time spans."

Schiavone has found it's never too late to make such changes, the likes of which were apparent when she declined a wlldcard to the Olympic tennis event in Rio de Janeiro.

"Obviously, things change. When you are young, you can fly from the US to China and back to US and back to China without much thought. Flights were easy then, but now, at 36, you make different decisions and ensure you get rest, practice, and be fresh for competition. One learns to work at an easy pace and enjoy the game, which is what I'm doing now."

With no plans of stopping anytime soon, there remains a plan for what's to come when the veteran decides to call it a career, one that will channel her love of the game into the next generation of Italian tennis.

"I hope one day I can serve my country and its players. I want to work with them and help them in the sport.

"It would be great to give back what I learned, because it truly was a gift."

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.