Amid bumpy career, Pennetta finally within grasp of Grand Slam title

Wednesday September 4th, 2013

After weathering ups and downs during her career, things are falling into place for Flavia Pennetta.
Al Bello/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- It was just after 1:30 this afternoon at the U.S. Open when a shriek echoed through the tunnel under Arthur Ashe Stadium. Flavia Pennetta had just defeated countrywoman Roberta Vinci to become the third woman to advance to the 2013 U.S. Open semifinals. Before disappearing into the locker room, she screamed joyously; if any player has earned the right to be voluble, it's Pennetta.

North of age 30, south of the top 50, her first Grand Slam semifinal may well represent the pinnacle of her career -- to say nothing of a $650,000 career-best payday. Pennetta, too, is a reminder that "life happens" to athletes, that results -- good and bad -- often reflect more than when is visible to fans and TV cameras on courts, fields and pitches.

We've established long ago that careers don't move in straight lines, but instead, they make perfect parabolas, like topspin lobs. Still, Pennetta's career has been particularly jagged. She's been ranked in top 10; she's been ranked outside the top 100. She's dazzled; she's fizzled. And often, as with most players, it's correlated with her personal life. The difference: Pennetta has been uncommonly candid about her struggles.

When her longtime tennis romance with Carlos Moya, the former Spanish champion, ended sourly, Pennetta wrote an entire book about it. Dritto al Cuore (Straight to the Heart) features passages like this:

"I put everything aside to support him. If you count the times I did it, probably the number is in itself ridiculous. My passion was him, I gave myself completely, and I lost my balance...[after the break-up] People felt sorry for me and I could not even defend myself. It was as if I had lost my taste for things. I was trying to be numb towards life, not to feel pain. I did not even feel physical pain. A silly example: even when I was waxing, I did not even feel anything."

Needless to say, she did play her best tennis during that juncture.

Two years ago, her Pennetta's mother was sentenced to one-year jail sentence for involuntary manslaughter after a fuel explosion on the family farm. (The victim reportedly died after two fuel trucks collided.)

Last year at this time, she missed the U.S. Open after undergoing surgery for a "cleaning of the right wrist," performed by the doctor who has treated Rafael Nadal.

However, she's bounced back after each setback, winning matches with elegant tennis, surprising power and movement that belies her advanced age. So far, she had won each of the 10 sets she played here, including a 6-0, 6-0 double-bagel (double bialy?) in her first match. Suddenly, she is two wins away from a Grand Slam title. Right now, life is beautiful.


Any comments on the exciting U.S. Open men's matches that DIDN'T get as much attention as Roger Federer's meltdown? I'm talking about Richard Gasquet vs. Milos Raonic and David Ferrer vs. Janko Tipsarevic. These players brought interesting histories and challenges, and both matches were highly exciting, even if viewers had to choose between them at some points, lamentably.
-- Amy, Irvine, Calif.

• That's sports (and news) in general. Earl Weaver dies on the same day as Stan Musial, and it gets buried. One of the best of all-time loses a fourth-round match to a lesser light -- still another dismal 2013 result for Federer -- and the other news of the day gets lost.

But, yes, belated congratulations are in order to both Gasquet and Ferrer. The former, for showing real guts and winning a five-setter, in the process snapping a streak of 11 losses in the fourth rounds of Grand Slams. In Ferrer's case, he ground down yet another opponent.

What is up with Chris Evert all of a sudden wanting to be called Chrissie? It's like you suddenly changing your byline to Jonny.
-- David, Charlotte

• Good question, Davey. I suspect it's a question of familiarity. Many fans have such positive associations. It's not as though it's a sudden change. She was Chrissie (Chrissy? Who decides these spellings? It's like movie characters. Who decides it's Skyler White and not Skylar?) Anyway, long as we're here: I know not all of you share this opinion. But I think Chris/Chrissie/Chrissy does an excellent job on the air. She's loose, she's candid and she's not overscripted. If the occasional nonsensical line is the penalty, I'll gladly pay that price.

Do you have any stats that attest to declining tennis viewership this year due to Federer not making it beyond the quarterfinals in any Grand Slam (except for the Australian Open)? I personally lose interest in the grand slams after Federer is out.
-- Raj Sonak , Potomac Falls, Va.

• I smell a project for a sports marketing/media major. One would have to control for a host of factors, but I would like to see data on this: when Roger Federer plays, by what percentage does the rating spike?

Is it too much too ask the ATP to supply microphones for reporters asking questions during after-match press conferences? Watching these pressers when only the player is mic'd is about as satisfying as hearing someone on a bus using their cell.
-- Greg M., Vancouver, BC

• It's an issue for the tournaments, not the ATP. But, yes, a boom mic would come in handy. Those televised press conferences suffer for only have a "A" of the Q and A.

I haven't done an exhaustive search, but I gotta believe I just came across the name of the tournament: Tornado Alicia Black. Know anything about her?
-- Alex Kaplan, Jamaica Plain, Mass.

• Storm-chasing, as it were. Don't just root for her, sponsor her career.

Shots, miscellany

• Dean Daggett: "An observation: Eight one-handed backhand men in the round of 16 and four in the quarters at Wimbledon. Six one-handed backhand men in the round of 16 and four in the quarters at the U.S. Open. Perhaps one in 5,000 boys are taught the one-hander. If more were taught, might we not have a huge disparity in winners who employ the versatile, powerful one-hander? Everybody has learned how to hit against spin. Few are bothered by it. So, could this be part of why the one-handers are prospering, despite their meager ranks? To my knowledge, Federer is the only one-hander who is troubled significantly by the topspin shot to his backhand. Gasquet clobbers any backhand, as does Haas, Wawbrinka, Youzhny, Kohlschreiber. The one-hander is far more versatile and, yes, more powerful in men's hands than the two-hander, when it is hit with the proper grip. Granted, some one-handers are close to a Continental grip on it, and those do have trouble with the high topspun ball (Federer and Sampras come to mind). But with the full Eastern forehand grip, no height is a problem. Just thinkin'....

• Gregory Roberts of Tarzana, Calif.: "Long lost siblings -- Denis Istomin and Ninja, the South African rave rap star from Die Antwoord."

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