Italy’s cup overflows on Flavia Pennetta’s big day

Italy is a nation known for a number of things, vineyards being near the top of the list.

Italian tennis has featured four industrious professionals in the 21st century, all of them players who have been able to reach a major-tournament singles final.

In 2012, Sara Errani reached the French Open final. This Saturday afternoon at the U.S. Open, Roberta Vinci — who will be remembered 30, 50, 70, or 100 years from now as The Woman Who Denied Serena Williams The 2015 Grand Slam — made her first appearance in a major final. Those two players, however, did not lift a trophy at the end of their full-distance runs in tennis’s most prestigious events.

In 2010, Francesca Schiavone — like Vinci after defeating Serena, an effervescent and endlessly charming athlete with a rich sense of perspective — was able to celebrate not just the arrival of a big moment, but the conquering of it. She defeated Sam Stosur at Roland Garros to win her first (and what will almost certainly be her only) major title just a few weeks before turning 30, a full 12 years into her professional career.

All that time. All that effort. All those investments. All those years on tour, with the flights, the practice sessions, the battles with mind and body, for over a decade as a pro and for roughly one’s whole life as a tennis player… and the sweet payoff arrived.

The day Schiavone hoped for, but never could have known she’d find, became a reality.

Laboring in the vineyard of tennis bore the richest of fruits:

Everything that Schiavone got to taste five years ago in Paris, Flavia Pennetta was able to experience on Saturday in New York against the aforementioned Vinci, her longtime friend and the woman who instantly transformed the nature of this women’s singles final.

When Pennetta authoritatively dismissed No. 2 seed Simona Halep in Friday’s first semifinal, anyone and everyone who writes about tennis — paid or unpaid — was preparing some sort of piece on how Pennetta was going to be the last obstacle for Serena Williams on her march to a unique place in the sport’s history. Pennetta was going to endure a 24-hour whirlwind in which the American and global press corps were going to ask her what it was going to be like to stand in the arena on the other side of the net from Serena, with the 21-time major champion trying to nail down the first Grand Slam in 27 years.

Then, however, Roberta Vinci stood in the way, and in a heartbeat, Pennetta didn’t face the pressure of going up against the elite player of our time. She faced what was in one sense an easier task, but in certain ways, this chore was uniquely challenging.

Playing a good friend doesn’t guarantee a different demeanor, but it certainly invites the very real possibility that the attributes an athlete uses to perform at a consistently high level might not exist to the same degree. A little bit of sentimentality, and a little bit of dreaming about the improbably wonderful circumstance that had been freshly created by Vinci on Friday afternoon, could have crept into Pennetta’s mind. At times in the first set, it did seem that Pennetta was playing the match on Vinci’s terms, or if not that, playing the match as a friendly hit and not as cutthroat sport. No, Pennetta almost certainly didn’t mean it to happen that way, but the periods in the match when she leaked errors and hit rather passively suggested that she was not always in control of the moment.

However, when she needed to clean up the stat sheet and reduce errors in what was an unsurprisingly patchy (but decent) match, Pennetta did what she had to do.

Pennetta didn’t dazzle in the day’s pivotal sequence, the first-set tiebreaker Vinci needed to win. (Vinci’s second-set decline after losing the first set represented a perfectly normal occurrence, magnifying the abnormal nature of her one-of-a-kind upset of Serena just over 24 hours earlier.) Pennetta reminded us that there are many ways to win a tennis match, one of them being to keep the ball in play long enough that your more fatigued opponent eventually falters. Vinci’s forehand, a key to her win over Serena, broke down in that tiebreaker, and when Pennetta captured it by a 7-4 score, she was able to relax.

Pennetta then motored to a 4-0 lead in the second set, and after realizing how close she was to winning a major title — the first time usually ambushes anyone who abruptly arrives at that realization on the court — she stumbled and lost the next two games. Serving at 4-2 and 40-30, Pennetta needed to avoid getting sucked into a complicated service game as she neared the goal she’d been pursuing for 15 years on tour. Pressed into the deuce corner, Pennetta deftly picked up a probing approach shot from Vinci and half-volleyed a defensive lob over Vinci’s head to hold for 5-2. That was the last turning point of the day, the one Pennetta used to seal her championship just before the rains came in Flushing, New York.

*

Was this the moment American tennis fans and a lot of casual American sports fans wanted to see on Saturday? Of course not. Yet, the broad canvas of life and the constant variety of sport both show us that abundantly large joys and beautiful moments can emerge when and where we least expect them.

We didn’t get to see Serena Williams register a seminal accomplishment in the history of tennis (though she has forged many of them, this year and throughout the years). What we DID get to see was this:

Just to be clear, the LOSING player is the one on the left, in the white jacket.

The women’s U.S. Open; “The Author of the Upset,” Roberta Vinci; and a first-time major champion at the age of 33, Flavia Pennetta, all gave us one beautiful and blessed Italian banquet for the sports fan’s soul. The banquet was accompanied by the choicest wines, vintage creations developed by two players in their 30s, two players who have spent all of their adult lives in the vineyards of tennis.

I propose a toast — to the endearing and special friendship shared by Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta. May it live forever.

Let’s also raise a glass of vino to Italy; another first-time major champion from that country on the WTA Tour; and to the losing player who certainly looked like she had won the darn thing when it was all over.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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