Williamsburg resident Francesca Caravella is 93 years old, but that doesn’t stop her from playing tennis 3-4 days a week and whipping up on the young‘ns.
Three times a week, and sometimes more, Francesca Caravella slings her tennis bag over her shoulder and trudges across the grass from her home just a few hundred yards away in search of competition.
She arrives at the court each morning, and effortlessly reaches down like a gymnast stretching for a routine to remove little plastic bags from her shoes, her protection against the morning dew.
Here at Williamsburg, one of Wesley Chapel’s oldest communities where she has lived since 1983, Francesca is tennis royalty. The 93-year-old left-handed racquet-wielding spitfire also is something of a freak of nature.
“You wouldn’t know she’s that old, the way she plays,” says Glenn Dimiccio, who maintains the courts at Williamsburg and also is one of the community’s top players.
Dimiccio is warming her up on this day, and it is brutally hot and humid. And yet, Francesca is moving side-to-side, hitting backhands and forehands undaunted.
She had her left meniscus surgically repaired a few years ago, ending her singles career, and her right knee is bone-on-bone and can get quite sore, but Francesca is remarkably agile for someone her age. She still cracks a steady forehand and will liberally mix in high lobs to keep her opponents off the net.
“You gotta do what you gotta do,” she is fond of saying.
In matches, Francesca lets her partners do the work at the net. She was once smacked so hard in the face by an overhead, “I had to spend thousands of dollars on new dentures.”
Francesca definitely knows the game of tennis. She is picky about her racquets and tennis gear and she watches the game closely on the Tennis Channel.
Her friends at Williamsburg have asked her why she doesn’t get an official USTA ranking. The USTA holds national events in all age groups, including 90+, and her teammates and opponents are almost certain she is one of the best 90-year-olds in the country.
“I don’t want to travel far to play people,” she says. “Being number one is just not that big a deal for me.”
The daughter of immigrants who hailed from Messina, Sicily, Francesca grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where she says exercise was always a way of life.
She played handball in junior high and stickball in the streets. She says she joined a gym at 16 years old, and after meeting her husband Sal at age 18, learned to ballroom dance. After she had children, she would exercise along with Jack LaLanne on television.
It wasn’t until she moved to Florida in 1985 that she picked up a tennis racquet.
“Nobody ever gave me a lesson,” Francesca says. “Not one. I picked up things by watching players on television. I remember watching (Bjorn) Borg, (Andre) Agassi and (Pete) Sampras. I learned the basics by watching them.”
After tennis, Francesca heads back home to shower, and then it’s off to the New Tampa YMCA for some cardio and yoga. When her workout is over, she will spend many afternoons on her ¾-acre lot, tending to her gardens.
Francesca takes her tennis seriously. She keeps a journal and a log of every potential player. She plans matches at least two weeks in advance. And, if you don’t show up to play when scheduled, you will learn something else about Francesca.
“She is feisty,” Dimiccio says.
The two became fast friends, after DiMiccio moved to Williamsburg long after Francesca had already established herself as the Queen of the Courts in the tight-knit community.
Dimiccio had just started playing tennis again after putting away his racquet decades ago, and he says “she was kicking my butt.”
The two are now inseparable mixed doubles partners. Dimiccio is more advanced, with a high 4.0 USTA rating, while Francesca is more of a 3.0. He serves as her unofficial coach and protector, and they make an ideal pair.
“I promised her I’ll play with her every Friday as long as she’s around,” DiMiccio says, then jokingly adding, “but now it looks like she just might bury me.”
Special thanks to Wes Henagan for his help on this story.