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Francesca Schiavone on battling cancer and why Jannik Sinner is a Grand Slam champion in the making

Former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone on battling cancer, taking up a coaching role with Petra Martic, the strength of Italian men's tennis, including teenage prodigy Jannik Sinner, and she looks ahead to Roland Garros

Italy's Francesca Schiavone after defeating Australia's Samantha Stosur in the women's final match of  the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Saturday, June 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

"When you are still alive and you want to decide what you want to do in life, then you're already lucky, very lucky," says Francesca Schiavone as she reflects on her battle against cancer, taking up coaching, and why she thinks teenager Jannik Sinner is a future Grand Slam champion.

The Italian, who won the French Open in 2010, retired in 2018 having won eight titles on the WTA Tour, but not long after she went on to face a her greatest battle.

"I did chemotherapy, I fought a tough battle and now I am still breathing. I have won this fight. And now I am back in action," she said in an emotional social media post in December 2019.

She later told the WTA: "Life keeps going. I'm healthy now. I look healthy. I can't control the future because it's something that attacks you and you don't know. What happened, happened. For now, I'm fantastic."

Schiavone is smiling again having taken up a coaching role with Croatia's Petra Martic ahead of the clay-court season.

She clearly still has a passion for tennis as well as a penchant for food and wine. The three-time Fed Cup winner has opened a bistro along with her partner, Sileni, in her home city of Milan.

Petra Martic in action against Varvara Gracheva during a women's singles match at the 2020 US Open, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020 in Flushing, NY. (Simon Bruty/USTA via AP)
Image: Schiavone accepted a coaching role with Petra Martic for the clay-court season (Simon Bruty/USTA via AP)

The 40-year-old, who had previously coached Caroline Wozniacki, only for health to rightly take precedent, is delighted to be back on the circuit. She tested the waters by developing young players before stepping back on the professional circuit - feeling well enough to resume as normal a life as she possibly can.

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"This is a fantastic new story for me and I also hope for her [Petra Martic]. The most important thing is to live through this coronavirus," she said.

"The travelling and training is very difficult because we're always in a bubble. You have to be careful who you speak to and we can't go outside, so it's not easy from a mental aspect.

"We've decided to take it step-by-step for the clay season with Madrid, Rome and then Paris [for the French Open]. One step at a time."

Serena Williams waves as she leaves Rod Laver Arena following her semifinal loss to Japan's Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)
Image: Serena Williams on clay? Schiavone says 'no'

Schiavone is impressed with the strength in depth of the WTA Tour with the likes of world No 1 Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep leading a talented pack of players including Grand Slam winners Sofia Kenin, Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza and Serena Williams.

The Italian spoke highly of Barty, who won the prestigious Miami Open earlier this month before following it up with her first clay-court title since winning the 2019 French Open, in Stuttgart. She also offered her thoughts on whether Williams can claim an elusive 24th Grand Slam title at Roland Garros.

"Can Serena do it? On the clay? If I have to say something, I say no. But every time I say no something happens," Schiavone replied with a wry smile.

Jannik Sinner Vs Roberto Bautista Agut during the semifinals at the 2021Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium on April 2, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Credit: mpi04/MediaPunch /IPX
Image: Italian teenager Jannik Sinner is the real deal

Italian men's tennis is on a high. Not since the days of former French Open champions Nicola Pietrangeli (1959, 60) and Adriano Panatta (1976) has the country seen so many talented players. It's only taken 45 years, but there's an abundance of gifted youngsters.

One particular player has a star quality which could make him a multiple Grand Slam champion of the future. Jannik Sinner has burst onto the scene, reaching the Miami Open final and semi-finals in Barcelona this year, and he's still only 19.

World No 1 Novak Djokovic has marked Sinner as a future champion, saying the teenager has the skill and the hunger to develop into a top player, and Schiavone agrees.

"He is a great guy. I think a champion has to be an amazing person, then he loves this sport, and the third step is that he works a lot. He has a quality where he can see the ball faster than other players. He can be number one in the world," she said.

"Absolutely, he can win a Grand Slam. I know that he will. It's coming."

Italy's Francesca Schiavone returns the ball to Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki during their quarter final match for the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Tuesday, June 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Image: Schiavone believes the future of Italian tennis is looking bright

Italy's growth has come on the back of a commitment to hosting a lot of tournaments at all professional levels, while Schiavone believes more academies - like the Riccardo Piatti tennis academy - and a mixture of young coaches are also helping to improve the system.

"The future is bright," she said. "We have great players and they will work to keep going and to be top 10 and to be number one and to win Slams. I think someone will arrive soon to beat Francesca, Flavia (Pennetta) and Roberta (Vinci)."

Schiavone's heart is pounding at the thought of her return to Roland Garros in late May, where her dreams became a reality 11 years ago.

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