“And one more thing. I have something else to say, if it’s okay,” said Flavia Pennetta, newly-crowned US Open champion, at the presentation ceremony inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. It had just begun to drizzle in New York and the trophy was yet to be hoisted by the maiden Grand Slam champion.
But Pennetta’s request forced the chairman of the USTA, Katrina Adams, to place back the trophy on the dais that she had just picked up and and pick up the microphone she had just placed down. The mike was handed over to Pennetta.
“Before this tournament began, my family, team and I had to take a really tough decision,” the 33-year old said. “So I would like to tell you all that this will be my last match in New York. I will retire at the end of this year as a tennis player.”
Chairman Adams looked like she had seen a ghost, reaching out to grab Pennetta’s shoulder. Up in the president’s box, Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, specially flown in to watch two of his country’s finest participate in the first all-Italian US Open, gasped. Up in Pennetta’s box, boyfriend Fabio Fognini – the man who knocked out Rafa Nadal in the third round of this tournament – held a hand to his face. He would later concede that he had no idea she was contemplating retirement.
The crowd too, clapping up until this moment, roared a collective ‘Nooooo!’ Only Roberta Vinci, the losing finalist and Pennetta’s best friend on tour, didn’t react. She had been informed during their post-match hug.
“No no no no!” Pennetta cried. “Don’t feel bad for me. I’m happy. This is a dream for any player to retire like this, on a high. I am glad I could do this in front of you New Yorkers. You know I love this place.”
She does. She really does. Outside of New York, the 26th ranked Pennetta had reached just one Grand Slam quarterfinals – at the Aussie Open in 2014.
In NY, though, Pennetta had reached four quarterfinals and one semifinal in 2013. Then, today, she appeared in her first ever final, won it in straight sets and as the sun set behind rain clouds, she rode away as a former player into the city’s drenched skyline.
The day had begun on a sunnier note. Two hours before the women’s final, first time finalists Pennetta and Vinci were spotted chatting away at a restaurant by Boris Becker. Surprised, Becker is said to have asked them, “Guys, do you have any idea that you are going to take on each other in a Grand Slam final soon?” Vinci, forever wearing a smile, one that only got broader since she beat Serena Williams in the semifinal, replied: “Yes Boris. But we are sisters, no?”
Pennetta and Vinci have known each other a long time. They were born one year apart in the month of February, in 1982 and 1983, respectively. “We first play each other when we were nine years old, in a country club in my home town of Brindisi,” Pennetta would say later. “When we were growing up, we even stay together, share a room for five years in Rome. She’s my best friend, we have shared so many experiences together. And to have her there, in a Grand Slam final, couldn’t get any better.”
There were pros and cons to lifelong buddies meeting each other in the final, of course. Pro: they knew each others’ game inside out. Con: they knew each others’ game inside out. So as the two thirty-year olds – first time in a women’s final in the open era – walked out side by side to commence the 128th title-decider, the spectators (most of them who bought tickets to witness Serena create history) expected nothing less than a tough three-set battle.
And so it began. Vinci vs Pennetta. Northern Sicily vs Southern Italy. Single-handed backhand vs double-fisted backhand. The one who beat World No. 1 Serena vs the one who beat No.2 Halep.
In Serena’s backyard, though, it was Serena’s nemesis who cracked first. And that glorious backhand, played to vintage perfection in the semis against the American, was the first to cave in.
In the fourth game of the first set. Pennetta repeatedly attacked Vinci’s backhand. And Vinci repeatedly chopped her returns under the tape.
Pennetta broke to make it 3-2 and consolidated to go up 4-2. But Vinci immediately broke back. Even as her backhand slices were giving way, her ripping forehand seemed to be working just fine. She tore into Pennetta’s weak second serves and soon, the set was heading into a tiebreak.
At 6-all and 2-all in the shoot-out, the girls got into a crosscourt rally, trading fizzing forehands for fun. But just as Vinci spotted an opening and looked to change direction – going for the kill down-the-line – the open face of the racquet shanked the ball into the stands. And Pennetta had the mini break. A big swerving serve, tearing away from Vinci’s reach, gave her the tiebreak 7-4. The first set was won 7-6.
It didn’t take Pennetta very long to break Vinci’s serve and nerve in the second set. But it did take her to hit the most outrageous winner of the set, match and day to achieve it.
Sometime in the rally to kickoff Vinci’s first service point of the set, Pennetta found herself back-trotting, well past her baseline, to retrieve a deep sailing slice.
She double-handed it back to the other side of the court. Only, the shortness of its length dragged Vinci ahead. From the net, Vinci sliced the ball to Pennetta’s forehand and prepared for the volley.
The volley went deep to Pennetta’s backhand again, whose lunge barely got the ball to the other side – high and in Vinci’s smash radar. The overhead put-away clipped the rim of Vinci’s racquet, trickling down for a drop winner.
But somehow, Pennetta hared across to the service line, picked the dying ball up before the second bounce and swung it past a baffled Vinci to win the point. Three points later, she had the break. And soon the match and trophy as well.
“Put your hands together for two great champions,” chairman Adams announced as the on-court rivals turned sisters once more for the presentation ceremony. Just as the crowd began their applause, Vinci interrupted. “Wait, so if I’m champion also, can I share this trophy with Flavia?”
Both girls, hands clasped around the other’s shoulder, chortled. It was hard to tell which one of them had won and which one had lost. And which one was soon going to call it a day.
Aged and rare
Flavia Pennetta became the second Italian woman to win a Grand Slam title, edging compatriot Roberta Vinci 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 in the US Open final. Italian Francesca Schiavone won the 2010 French Open.
At 33 years and 199 days, Flavia Pennetta became the oldest first-time Grand Slam women’s champion in the Open era. Incidentally, this was only the sixth time that two first-time finalists faced off in Grand Slam, the last being in 2010 when Sam Stosur was defeated by Italian Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros.
The 33 year old Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci, 32, had the oldest combined Grand Slam final in history (66 years). The previous record was held by Virginia Wade and Betty Stove at Wimbledon in 1977 (63 years, 11 months).
The number of Grand Slams Pennetta played, including the 2015 US Open, before she won a Major — the most needed for any women’s champion and two more than France’s Marion Bartoli when she won at Wimbledon in 2013.