In a weekend of turmoil, all anyone could be certain of about the women’s final of the US Open was that the winner would not be Serena Williams but would be fluent in Italian – and not a soul predicted that Flavia Pennetta, in halting English, would turn her victory speech into a farewell to tennis.
When Marion Bartoli decided to quit the game after winning Wimbledon in 2013, she was aching physically. But Pennetta’s retirement, at 33 – although there was the vaguest hint that she might carry on playing until the end of the season – seems very much to be inspired by a long search for happiness, after heartbreak years ago and then a rediscovered love of tennis.
Standing alone on court where she and her opponent and compatriot, Roberta Vinci, had stood separately in unexpected victory the day before, Pennetta said: “One month ago, I made a big decision in my life; and this is the way I would like to say goodbye tennis. This was my last match and I couldn’t think to finish a better way.
“Before this tournament, I never thought to be this far, to be a champion. It’s been a long time getting here. It’s a dream come true. It’s also nice to play against a friend. She has had an incredible two weeks. We know each other since we were really young. Our first match, I was nine years old.”
Pennetta confirmed her plans afterwards. “I will play until the end of year, but this was my last match here in New York,” she said. “I’m supposed to play Wuhan, Beijing, the only two.”
Vinci, coming off the biggest win of her career, over Williams the day before, stepped in to say: “It was tough, over 24 hours there were a lot of things on my mind, a little tired. But I’m really happy to be in the final, really happy for Flavia. It’s tough to play someone you have known for a long time. Flavia played a great match.”
In 93 minutes Pennetta not only trebled her season’s earnings with a jump of $3.3m, but won her first slam final at 33, having reached the semi-final here twice before, by beating the 32-year-old doubles specialist Vinci 7-6, 6-2 in the first all-Italian final of a major.
At the 49th time of trying, Pennetta became the second Italian woman to win a major after Francesca Schiavone’s emotional, joyous win over Sam Stosur at Roland Garros in 2010, a year before the Australian went on to beat Williams in the US Open final. Neither has managed to contend properly in a slam tournament since. Stosur was one of Pennetta’s victims here, along with the second seed, Simona Halep, and the fifth, Petra Kvitova.
The last time they played was here two years ago, when Pennetta won in straight sets to reach her first slam semi-final; she came into this final a distinct favourite, first because of her better pedigree in singles and, second, because hers was the less gruelling semi-final.
It has been some journey for Pennetta, who came close to quitting the game when she was romantically involved with the Spaniard Carlos Moya. She wrote with aching candour in her 2011 autobiography, Dritto al Cuore (Straight To The Heart), about the how break-up of her three-year relationship with the former world No1 hit her self-worth. “If I made a mistake it was in dedicating myself too much to him, at the loss of myself .… After three years I thought I’d arrived: a complete woman and ready to take on a family.”
She was 25 and prepared to walk away from tennis for those new priorities but, devastated by the split, she lost 10lb, and it took a rededication to her sport to soothe the pain. Part of her rehabilitation, accidentally almost, was to pair up with the Argentinian Gisela Dulko – who had also had an unsatisfactory relationship with a handsome Spaniard, Fernando Verdasco. They rose to No 1 in the world in doubles, winning the Australian title in 2011, as good a cocked snoot as either of them could have hoped for.
She says the turning point came with a win over Serena Williams in an exhibition match in Milan in 2011; in that, Vinci will know exactly how it feels. Her own voyage of discovery has been less painful, personally, but no less arduous on the Tour. And here Pennetta is eight years later, a grand slam champion, with the oldest first-time success in the open era.
Vinci had to scrap from the start, saving six break points in the first 20 minutes, before Pennetta finally cracked her resistance in the fifth game, and there was a sense that this might be the start of the slide.
If the rigours of slaying a legend had drained her physically and mentally only 24 hours before, the signs would soon become obvious, and racing from deep only to scoop up a drop-shot into the net as Pennetta stretched her lead suggested her energy levels had dropped.
The older player, a seasoned face on the singles circuit while Vinci ploughed the lonelier fields in doubles, began to bring her power to the equation, and her win over Simona Halep in the first semi-final had not apparently taken too much out of her. However, as they neared the half-hour, Pennetta struck a roadblock and Vinci broke back to level in the eighth game. By they time they had worked their way to the tie-break, there were pretty much at the same level, the strength having returned to Vinci’s smaller frame.
Pennetta squandered a good chance to grab three set points with a fluffed passing shot, followed by a first double-fault, as the anxiety returned. But she gritted her teeth and took the set.
Her confidence restored, Pennetta began hitting through the ball again and broke Vinci in the second game of the second set. Vinci’s pop-gun serve – good enough to cope with Williams in the semi-final – was now her handicap and Pennetta was eating it up at will, breaking for 4-0, as Vinci stuck a tired backhand into the net.
She had a chance to claw back a break in the fifth game, but blew a forehand volley on the run that would have been routine for her normally.
Pennetta gave another opportunity, when her own volley flew from the frame to the tramlines. Vinci made no mistake with a regulation smash, and was at least spared the experience of being bageled in a slam final.
Leading 5-2 and with the championship almost within her grasp, Pennetta needed to beat the rain as well as her compatriot, as drizzle edged slowlytowards the stadium. She fairly rushed through her concluding service game, finishing with a crisp forehand into the corner, four minutes before the rain came.
The pair embraced warmly at the net at the end. “It’s an incredible moment for all Italian people,” Vinci said. “At the net she said, ‘This is my last match on the US Open.’” Asked what she thought they had both proved, she said, “Miracles can happen. I had nothing to prove. I’m almost at the end of my career, so I think I enjoyed more the tennis. I love New York, but today is probably my last cheeseburger, and then tomorrow pasta, real pasta at home.”
For Pennetta, there was the added comfort of having someone to share the joy with, the Italian Fabio Fognini, who beamed down from the stands.
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