Francesca Schiavone. Samantha Stosur. Marion Bartoli. And now, Flavia Pennetta. A cynic might look at this list and scoff at how weak the women’s tennis field has been this decade, and how terrible it is for the sport that such fluky no-names are getting to win Majors.
Isn’t it a good thing, then, that humanity has a lot more to offer than just cynicism?
News flash: Women’s tennis is not dying a slow and painful death, as many would have you believe. If anything, results like Pennetta’s 7-6, 6-2 win in the US Open final, which came over her unseeded friend and countrywoman Roberta Vinci, show just how deep the field is right now. The sport is in good health, and is primed to get even healthier in the near future.
These players – the ‘no-names’ and the ‘flukes’ – are all capable of playing amazing tennis. If you watch any WTA match – even one between the World No. 5 and the World No. 205, you’ll know that there’s very little to separate the star from the journeywoman.
They all hit the ball hard. They all move incredibly fast. They all return serve with unerring aggression. And okay, none of them may be good servers (except Serena Williams), but they more than make up for that with oodles of determination and heaps of gumption.
And then there’s the enchancting fairytale aspect of it all. These women spend countless hours on the practice court trying to maximize every last ounce of their talent, and when you see them standing on the dais, glowing with a light that can only come from accomplishing the impossible, you know that it’s all worth it.
With their sweat, their shrieks, their shots and their speed, this decade’s female tennis champions have been sending a message for the ages: Hard work pays off.
The 33-year-old Pennetta and the 32-year-old Vinci showed all of that, and more, in their epic journeys through the 2015 US Open. Vinci had a relatively easier draw in the early going, benefitting from a Eugenie Bouchard walkover in the fourth round and the no-shows of stars like Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, but faced the mother of all challenges when she was pitted against Serena Williams in the semifinal.
Pennetta on the other hand was taken to three sets by Jarmila Gajdosova in her very first match, and had to continue fighting as she was presented with opponents as tough as Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep.
That they both made it through to the summit clash unscathed tells us a lot about their never-say-die attitude and astonishing perseverance, but also about how uncertain our athletic pursuits can be. Serena Williams may be far and away the best player on the planet right now, but on a given day even she can be matched stroke-for-stroke by a spirited competitor – as Vinci showed so admirably yesterday. The margins are infintely small, and the chances of catastrophe large – and ever-present.
But there was to be no catastrophe for Pennetta this fortnight. Despite all the tough matches and the fatigue that always comes with playing opponents who hit bigger than you, she hung in there. She is now the oldest player in the Open era to have won her first Grand Slam title, and that record is unlikely to be broken any time soon.
Playing solid baseline tennis with the occasional foray to the net, Pennetta used her supreme backhand to remarkable effect all tournament. She could both extend and finish a point with the stroke, and that proved to be the decisive weapon in each of her seven matches.
Her pace of shot may not have been the highest among the players in the tournament, but her desire to win certainly was. The match against Kvitova was particularly striking. Pennetta was being completely outgunned by the two-time Wimbledon champion and trailed by a set and a break; for all intents and purposes her run through the draw seemed to have come to a skidding halt.
But experience tells: having stared down her fair share of big hitters for more than a decade, the Italian knew that it was only a matter of time before the baseline blasts that were going in would eventually start going out. That’s exactly what happened: Kvitova couldn’t keep up her accuracy off the ground, and ended up losing the match in three sets.
Pennetta showed that sometimes, slow, steady and subtle does win the race over the fast, flashy and furious. She could never hope to match the athletic gifts of the Kvitovas and the Stosurs, so she defeated them with patience and verve instead.
And we all had no option but to stand up and applaud.
In that context, it’s a bit of a shame that her victorious run will perhaps be overshadowed by her bombshell announcement at the presentation ceremony – that she is retiring from the game. Much like Bartoli and her now-legendary exit after her 2013 Wimbledon triumph, Pennetta will, at least for the immediate future, be referred to as the player who won her first Slam and then immediately decided to call it quits.
“This is how I say goodbye to tennis. I’m really happy. It's what all players think to want to do, going out with this kind of big trophy...I couldn’t think to finish in a better way,” Pennetta said.
The questions will keep swirling: Did she have no more motivation left to play? Did she think she could never match such an incredible feat? Was she scared of having a poor next season and being forced to retire? Why didn’t she want to continue when she was playing the best tennis of her career?
I would say it’s not our place to question her decision, but I know that would be pointless; human curiosity is never sated by such frivolous things as reasoning and logic. But I will say this: irrespective of what Pennetta’s true motivation behind it may be – and she says it was a decision one month in the making, even though her fiance Fabio Fognini had no idea about it – she has managed to script a truly fairytale ending to a commendable career.
From her presentation ceremony speech it sounded like this was the last match of her career, but sources have confirmed that she told Eurosport later she plans to play out the remainder of the season. And what a memorable quarter of a season that promises to be. Everyone respects a reigning US Open champion, and everyone respects a retiring veteran even more, which means each match that Pennetta plays from here on out will be an event on its own.
For now though, she has already given us plenty of memories to savour and cherish for all eternity. After the match she and Vinci joked around on the sidelines and the podium, exchanging smiles and hugs like there was no tomorrow. In the process, they not only reminded us that achieving a lifelong dream can make for a truly beautiful moment, but also that maintaining friendships and respecting your opponents can bring you unbridled happiness.
Pennetta the champion had tears in her eyes as she contemplated the ramifications of what she had just accomplished, but she also felt genuine commiseration for her defeated friend. Vinci, for her part, took the defeat like a champion herself, beaming at her victorious friend and reveling in her joy despite having thrown it all out on the court for an hour and a half.
“Roberta played an amazing tournament,” Pennetta said at the presentation, at which Vinci quipped, “Should I take the trophy?”
And just like that, Pennetta and Vinci had together crafted a finale that showcased sport, and humanity, at its finest. Why would we ever exchange that for a predictable bunch of regulars winning all the Slams over and over again?
I’ll take the no-names over the same old proven champions any day, thank you very much.