NEW YORK – A lioness is on the loose at a local public park called the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Stay out of the way. Four women didn’t, and the lioness, who speaks Italian, and deals Baroque spin, dined on them and is prowling the quarter-finals of the US Open.
Called “La Lionessa” by compatriots for her quickness to pounce and competitive ferociousness, she is 30-year-old Francesca Schiavone, bred on the dirt lots of Milan but increasingly happy at play on the Open’s swift pavement.
Satisfying her appetite by closing with a tasty bagel, 6-3, 6-0, yesterday, Schiavone got rid of a rising Russian with a freight train family name (14 letters), 19-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
“I beat her the last time we played [Key Biscayne, March], but,” said No. 22 Pavyluchenkova, “she is more aggressive now. She hits a lot of spins that not many women can do. I think winning the French Open gave her a lot more confidence.”
Francesca agrees. As the lone Italian woman ever to own a major singles title, she will always have Paris and the glow of her superlative long-shot performance, ranking No. 17, to overcome Aussie Samantha Stosur, No.7.
“I feel better than in the French Open because I know how to do it, how to win a match like that. So I’m very curious. I’m interesting to see and write a new history. Not for tennis. For me. It’s fantastic to be here. Really.”
“When you win one [a major] you can say I want another, as many as you can. You are hungry, but you have to respect because to win one is something so big, so long, so tough that it’s absolutely so far away from the moment. So now is the time to enjoy this quarter-final.”
To be exact, it’s three victories away, and in the way is another of Francesca’s vintage, two-time champ Venus, a 7-6 (7-3), 6-3, winner over Israeli Shahar Peer.
Though No. 4 Ms Williams is 7-0 over No. 7 Schiavone, she will be getting a different look within La Lionesse’s spin chamber. Her Baroque twistings and turnings of slice, topspin, chop (along with flat), and bold assaults at the net with serve-and-volley and chip-and-charge set Francesca apart as a very rare bird in the female menagerie.
One more long-shot victory – over Venus – would make her the first Italian woman to crack the US semifinals in 80 years, since a forgotten Baroness Maud Levi in 1930. If she were to grab the title, Francesca could at least be elected queen.
She is fun to watch, and delightful in conversation, a 5-foot-5 gamine with short dark hair, a warm toothy grin, and – believe it! – a one-handed backhand.
“Why do people cheer me? Because,” she laughed heartily, “I’m beautiful.” Perhaps not a Miss Italy beauty but very appealing, quick witted and having the time of her life after twelve years on the tour.
From the good earth of the French, the major with the slowest courts, to the US asphalt, probably the fastest, she is joyfully making the transition. “The points are shorter here, but I’m very fast, and can make points end fast. I can play fast or slow, is a mix. I can play serve-and-volley” — as she surprisingly showed in Paris. “So maybe I give you Capricciosa pizza when you’re looking for Margherita pizza — different kind of ingredients.” One very complex, one very simple.
On winning the French she kissed the clay court and declared it “better than spaghetti carbonara.” How delicious might the hard stuff of Flushing be? “I will test these courts with my lips,” she said. “But that will be a long way off. It will be a secret.”
During 68 minutes of a sunny, breezy afternoon, Francesca wowed about 8000 folks in Louis Armstrong Stadium, the arena named for the jazz master who used to live in the neighborhood. As the mixmistress, she knows his Dixieland stuff and would be pleased if she were a Saint marching in to his trumpet on Sunday.
“Music like tennis is an art,” she says, remembering the time years ago that she attended the opera at La Scala in her hometown, Milan, sneaking in because she had not enough money to buy a ticket. “ It was wonderful, but I forget the name of the opera.”
Maybe it was “Die Walkure,” featuring Brunnhilde, the warrior. I could see Schiavone in the role, swinging a racket instead of a sword. But she shouldn’t give up the lioness gig.