Paris – Don’t stand too close to a lion. You might get bit.
A nice young woman a long way from home, Aussie Samantha Stosur, found that out Saturday as 14,845 tennis devotees shrieked, clapped, howled and flapped the flags of Italy and Australia in wild disbelief while the new champion of France was sharpening her teeth, both participants playing in their first major final.
Her name — had you ever heard it? – is Francesca Schiavone. But she is known as The Lioness – ferocious growler — to her Italian countryfolk, who never dreamed that she would clean up in the French Open, winning, at age 29, the only title in her slim purse (only three others) that means anything. It didn’t matter if you were French, like the majority filling Roland Garros, because grabbing the French Championship, is the greatest of tennis deeds in Europe, the clay court countries bound together by the dirtkickers.
And what an historic impact. No Italian woman had ever climbed to the final in the 85-year-old French championship, or for that matter, any major championship. Only one had reached the semis, Silvia Lazzarino who lost to Maureen Connolly in 1954. Now Francesca has taken it one step farther to triumph. You could imagine a one-time tennis player Luciano Pavarotti (who could sing, too) leading a heavenly chorus to praise her.
But why was The Lioness, herself kicking some dirt in faces along the seven victory way, showing up for the final day of the women’s tournament. This leaping and bounding dark-haired hanger-on from Milan should have been outa here more than a week ago. Nobody was paying attention to her, 17th seeded. Once she made the quarter-finals in this major, but otherwise she was nowhere in eight other tries.
Yet here she was as SIGNORINA UPSET, in capital letters, shaking the joint up as few before her, 6-4, 7-6 (7-2), in 98 exciting minutes. Seventh seeded Stosur was the favorite, of course, after beating 4-time champ Justine Henin, No. 1 Sister Serena and No. 4 Jelly Jankovic (all previous or current numbert ones). She also led their head to head, 4-1. Still it was essentially a “Who they?” showdown until Schiavone began showing off her shotmaking, as sunny as the afternoon.
Behind a heavy forehand, Stosur looked as though she would dominate. However, the quick, slick Italian was conducting a tennis seminar, such as should be required watching for the rest of the usually unimaginative female gang.
Francesca was changing spins constantly, showing off a dandy slice that stayed low. She varied her serves (had a fine kicker), and sneaked in for unexpected volleys. Moving swiftly she was everywhere, retrieving startlingly. A good-humored pixie, she hung with Stosur until the last point of the first set, the Aussie’s lone double fault. But Stosur got loose for a 4-1 lead in the second only to be caught at 4-4.
“She made the shots, and forced me,” said Stosur, who committed 28 errors to the winner’s 19. Nevertheless, more will be heard of Sam.
Francesca yelled, “Beautiful – I’m happy,” as she fell backwards on her playground. Would she call it an upset? As she smilingly caressed the trophy and was interrupted by her cell phone ringing: “No, it’s like going over the limits, and be really everything that you can be in one hour, twenty minutes. I think I’m going to win every time I play. But this time there was something special inside me.” “I really always dreamed this tournament. It’s strange to say it, but when I call my daddy, he say to me, I remember you that you always dream this one. Every morning you wake up, you work to do something like this. So maybe it was far away in the reality, but here (pointing to her heart) never far away.
She dined on clay again for the third successive victory. “Yes, I ate a little. It means a lot to me. Dirt? It tasted better than spaghetti carbonara..” But her paycheck ($ 1,342,000) should keep her in pasta and soil.
A large group of friends wearing t-shirts with: “Sciavo, Nothing is Impossible” drove ten hours from Italy to watch her create history. She rewarded them by climbing into the stands to accept their enveloping hugs.
Giorgio Napolitano, the president of Italy, phoned her. “What did he say?
Congratulations,” she laughed. Though French finals have been dull lately, this one brought back the battles of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario of the 90s. As an upset, it ranks with Iva Majoli’s jolting No. 1 Martina Hingis in 1997.
Sam Stosur stayed close to The Lioness. Maybe too close. The Lioness bit when the tie-breaker arrived, and ran away with the victory of her life.