NEW YORK – Damn, these Italians do things with style, don’t they?
After winning her first Grand Slam title at the tennis-old age of 33 years and 201 days, as unpredictable a result as two Italian women playing in the U.S. Open women’s final, Flavia Pennetta shocked the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium—which included Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi—by saying she was retiring from her sport at the end of the year.
“Before I started this tournament, like one month ago, I made a big decision in my life,” said Pennetta, who won the U.S. Open as the No. 23 seed, defeating countrywoman Roberta Vinci 7–6(4), 6–2 on Saturday. “This is how I would like to say goodbye to tennis. And this is the way I would like to say goodbye to tennis...I’m really happy. It’s what all the players want to do, going out with this kind of big trophy. So this one was my last match at the U.S. Open and I couldn’t think to finish a better way.”
Pennetta said she started thinking about retiring at the beginning of 2015 but tried hard to fight those feelings.
Finally, last month in Toronto, she decided that she would finish her Grand Slam career in New York, no matter the result at the Open. Why would a woman who just won a Grand Slam singles title and who will rise to No. 8 in the world on Monday walk away from tennis?
“Because sometimes it's getting hard for me to compete,” Pennetta said. “This is the important point. When you are on the court, when you have to play 24 weeks in the year, you have to fight every week. And if you don't fight every week in the same way I did today, it's gonna be like bad. I don't feel to have this power anymore sometimes. So this is the perfect moment, I think. Was a really hard decision to make, but I'm really happy that I did it. I'm really happy and proud of myself.
“Winning or lose today, it was nothing going to change. The decision was already there. If I have to dream about how I want to finish, I want to stop playing, this is the perfect way.”
Pennetta said she thought the decision took some of the pressure off her game—her family and coaching staff knew about the decision as did her fiancée, 32nd-ranked men’s player Fabio Fognini—and she revealed it to Vinci when the two were sitting on chairs prior to the post-match trophy ceremony.
“She said, ‘This is my last match on the U.S. Open, so now I have to speak and tell to everyone that this is my last match,’” Vinci said. “I say, ‘No? That's it?’ Was incredible. I didn't expect that.”
The match was unlike what we’ve seen in a Grand Slam final in recent years and akin to something from the 1970s—one-handed backhands, slices that skittered the net, drop volleys, carving angles, no grunting. After starting nervy with a ton of unforced errors, Pennetta broke Vinci in the fifth game of the opening set on her seventh break point of that game. But Vinci broke back in the eighth game to tie the set at 4–4.
The players ultimately went to a first set tiebreak, and Pennetta earned a mini-break to lead 3–2 when Vinci hit a forehand long. Serving to win the set at 5-4, Pennetta held both her serves and won the opening set when Vinci hit her shot long. The opening set took exactly an hour and in between sets the Arthur Ashe Stadium scoreboard showed Renzi, who had made the trip to Queens for the historic moment (and perhaps for a brief respite from the dissatisfaction of those at home with a tanking economy), waving to the crowd.
The second set was all Pennetta, who broke Vinci three times and hit a cross-court winner at 4:56 p.m. to end the Italian Open of Queens. After the match, one of the Renzi’s crew draped an Italian flag over the Polo Ralph Lauren suite they were sitting in. It was a huge moment for Italian tennis. On the Saturday front page of Corriere della Sera, Pennetta and Vinci were featured next to a headline that read, "Two normal Italian girls have already made history."
Vinci said she was tired after the first set but made no excuses. “I think she played better,” Vinci said. “She was more solid than me and she play much better backhand, hit the lines, and she served better than me today.”
The two players began play at 3:22 p.m. holding this distinction: They had the oldest combined age (66 years and 19 days) of any Grand Slam finalists in the Open era, topping Virginia Wade and Betty Stove (63 years, 11 months) at Wimbledon in 1977. Pennetta entered the match as a slight favorite given she had won five of their nine career matches, including a 2–0 record at the majors. She becomes just the second Italian woman to win a Grand Slam singles title after Francesca Schiavone at the 2010 French Open. It was just the sixth time in the Open Era (and first time at the U.S. Open) that two first-time finalists have faced off in a Grand Slam final .The last time it happened—Forza!—Schiavone defeated Sam Stosur.
Pennetta said that she and Vinci have known each other since they were nine—they played against each other as 9-year-olds at a country club in Pennetta’s hometown of Brindisi—and they lived together in Rome as youngsters while training with the Italian Federation. The two won the 1999 French Open girls’ doubles title—both have major titles in women’s doubles—and after Pennetta’s win, they embraced at the net for about 20 seconds, perhaps the longest post-match embrace in Open history. Despite the loss, few will forget what Vinci did in Queens, recording the biggest upset in women's tennis history with her three-set win over Serena Williams.
“Miracles can happen,” Vinci said. “ Because I beat Serena, miracle. [Laughter.] And then two Italian can reach the Grand Slam final. Also, a miracle… I love New York. Today, probably this is my last cheeseburger, and then tomorrow pasta, real pasta at home.”
(Vinci, for the record, is not retiring. “No, no, no, no,” she said. “Not yet. Almost.”)
Pennetta said she will play the rest of her schedule in 2015—she is scheduled to play at tournaments in Wuhan, China, and Beijing and could make the season-ending championships in Singapore—before putting down her racket for good.
“Sometimes we are more scared to take the decision because we don't know what going to do after, how is going to be the life after,” Pennetta said. “But I think it's going to be a pretty good life. I mean, I'm really proud of myself. I think I did everything that I expect. More. Much more.”
Brava, Flavia and Roberta. The Italian Open of Queens was one to remember.