MELBOURNE – The star of the show did not win.
Yes, she won the crowd of 15,000 at the Australian Open. And she won the praise of her colleagues, foremost among them No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. But it was time to go home for the Italian pixie, Francesca Schiavone, the end of one of the more adverturous runs at a major title.
It was Francesca’s afternoon Tuesday even though she fell short of the semifinals, and must have felt like a pincushion as she suffered the slings and arrows of match after match in which she seemed overmatched, only to pull out the decision. She played 14 of a possible 15 sets, two tiebreakers and two extra long deuce sets.
By the time she worked her shotmaking magic to lead Wozinacki in their quarter-final, the customers had forgotten the Swiss drama that was the matinee’s warmup act: a couple of guys named Federer and Wawrinka.
A Swiss spectator sitting next to me said: “This country isn’t big enough for both of them.” Of course, this guy was mad at Federer, like many Swiss, for ducking Davis Cup because: “Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer could win the Cup for us. You saw how terrific they were in winning the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal in doubles. But Roger is thinking more of his personal achievements.”
Oh, well, he was slick and Wawrinka, who had muscled Nos. 12 and 8, Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick, out of the joint showed a terrific arsenal. A linebacker-looking guy with a mustache and scruffy beard, Wawrinka is a comer with a huge backhand and excellent movement, but all he could scrape up was one unfulfilled break point, losing to old pal Roger, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3. Still, it was nice to see two smooth one-handed backhands, both right handers, on the same court. Most unusual.
Nevertheless, it was beguiling Schiavone’s day, along with her own deceptive one-handed backhand and a truckload of spins, angles, and varied speeds. You don’t know what she is gonna do. Serve and volley, high looping giraffe balls, sneak volleys, drop shots. Making most foes seem stroke making retards, she’s definitely not one of the 4 B’s majority: Bang Bang Baseline Babes.
If tennis players wore numbers, Francesca’s would be 444 – a salute to her hanging-tough 6-4, 1-6, 16-14, victory over Svetlana Kuznetsova in the previous round. That set a female majors length record of 4 hours 44 minutes. This time, puzzling the top lady, Wozniacki, for a long stretch, the 30 year old Italian could go no further, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. Schiavone led 3-1 in the second but her game went off and Wozniacki’s came on large for a 6-game dash that the compact Lionessa (as her countrymen call her) could not handle.
Even so she kept the witnesses roaring by ducking 3 match points at the end. (She had saved six in the previous match) No glamour girl, Francesca is nonetheless appealing as she runs down balls incredibly, barking and squawking along the way. To put a word on her, she is endearing. The coaches on the WTA circuit could take lessons from her.
“I gave the best I could,” she shrugged, “but I made too many mistakes (in Wozniacki’s six game run). Then she played better, she played good, she play her tennis.”
Schiavone ascends to No. 4 from No. 6, the highest platform ever for an Italian woman. ”It’s fantastic. I worked hard to get here. Big emotion.”
“People can see I can change everything on court, speed, and angle. I can play good on hard court,” said the woman whose finest achievement was on Paris dirt. ”I risk more, go for my shots. I am like this.” She hit winners all over the place, ahead of Caroline, 41-16, but also led in errors, 46-16.
She thinks Wozniacki and Kim Clijsters will be in the final, giving the edge to Kim.
It hurt to lose, “but in the same time is good because – if I don’t die tomorrow – I will have another chance. I hope.”
And so does anyone who has seen her.