NEW YORK—Gazing across the net at her childhood rival and roommate, Flavia Pennetta came face to face with her introduction to tournament tennis. A passionate Pennetta transformed the first all-Italian US Open final into a fairy-tale farewell.
In a spirited final between friends and former doubles partners, Pennetta conquered Roberta Vinci, 7-6 (4), 6-2, to capture her first Grand Slam singles title in her 49th major appearance.
Then the first Italian woman to win the US Open delivered a stirring championship curtain call.
Moments after engaging in an extended embrace with Vinci, then kissing boyfriend Fabio Fognini, Pennetta pulled off one of the most memorable parting shots in tournament history.
The 33-year-old from Brindisi, Italy turned championship coronation into retirement celebration telling the crowd this US Open final is her Grand Slam finale.
“Before I start this tournament one month ago I take a big decision this is the way I would like to say good-bye to tennis,” Pennetta told the roaring crowd. “This one was my last match…and I coldn’t think to be in a better way (to retire).”
In her post-match press conference, Pennetta clarified this will be her last Grand Slam match. She plans to play Wuhan and Beijing in the coming weeks and would play the year-end WTA Championships if she qualifies. Pennetta is projected to rise to No. 8 when the new WTA rankings are released on Monday.
“This is the perfect moment, I think,” said Pennetta, who earned a champion’s check of $3.3 million. “It was a really hard decision to make, but I’m really happy that I did it. I’m really happy and proud of myself.”
A festive crowd that included Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, who flew in for the occasion, saw the oldest Grand Slam final of the Open Era between two thirtysomethings and former world No. 1 doubles players.
A day after pulling off an upset for the ages and denying world No. 1 Serena Williams the calendar Grand Slam, the 32-year-old Vinci could not solve a familiar opponent she’s known for ages.
The woman with the one-handed backhand and an abudance of spunkiness showed her spirit that won her legion of admirers, hugging her friend and jokingly trying to steal the trophy away at one point.
Who could have imagined a Grand Slam final between the world No. 26 and 43rd-ranked Vinci could provide such entertainment value. The challenge of trying to come down from her historic upset of Serena that she called the “best moment of my life” then elevate for her first career major final was physically and emotionally draining.
“It was tough; the past 24 hours with a lot of things on my mind and I was a little bit tired also, but I lost in the final. I’m really happy and really happy (to be) in the final,” Vinci said. “It’s tough to play against one player that you know from a long time. I try to do my best, but Flavia played unbelievable today so I have to say just congrats to her.”
Friends and former doubles partners going back to their junior days, the pair have spent countless hours on court together. They were roomates in Rome for a few years as juniors while training with the Italian Federation. Asked what kind of roommate Vinci was, a smiling Penneta replied “She’s perfect.”
From favorite tactics to favorite tattoos there are no secrets between them.
That put a premium on mastering execution and managing nerves.
Vinci’s forehand is her kill shot, but she was wounded by it scattering a couple of forehands to face double break point in the fifth game. Pennetta lined up her normally trusty two-hander but sailed it down the line on the second break point. Vinci fought off four more break points drawing to deuce for the sixth time. Vinci bungled a half volley then netted a slice backhand as Pennetta converted her sixth break point for a 3-2 advantage.
Consolidating quickly at love, Pennetta stretched the lead to 4-2.
Vinci, whose legs were tested playing four three-set matches en route to her first major final, wasn’t gaining traction in baseline exchanges. She began mixing it up more, occasionally attacking behind drives down the middle. A drop shot set up Vinci’s first topspin backhand pass of the day for her first break point. Pennetta’s two-hander down the line, typically a rock-solid shot, failed her under pressure as Vinci broke back for 4-4.
Amping up her aggression and emotion, Vinci thumped a forehand winner and held for 5-4 when Pennetta clanked a framed backhand. A fine low forehand volley helped Pennetta forge a 5-all deadlock. A tricky half-volley winner forced the tie break.
Spending stretches of the first 12 games looking tight on her forehand swing, Pennetta let it fly in the tie break.
A 15-shot rally percolating with varied spins and heights ended with Vinci netting a forehand down the line as Pennetta snared the mini break and a 5-3 lead. Aiming to attack a 73 mph second serve, Vinci looped a forehand return long giving Pennetta set points. She slid a slice serve into the corner earning a one-set lead after one-hour of play. Hitting heavier shots, Pennetta produced 17 winners compared to 10 for Vinci in the first set.
“I was tired. I was tired especially the first set,” Vinci said. “I think she played better. She was more solid than me and she play much better backhand, long line, and she served better than me today.”
The lead loosened up Pennetta, who owned a 24-1 record when winning the opening set at the Open. Whether she knew it or not, Pennetta had history on her side: The first-set winner had collected the last 20 consecutive US Open women’s finals.
Before the tournament began, the prospect of Pennetta and Vinci running into each other in New York City on Saturday in September seemed a more likely occurrence as special guests at the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy rather than as Grand Slam finalists on the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Pennetta arrived in New York with a 17-15 record on the season, including opening-round exits in Melbourne and Wimbledon.
Netting a routine backhand volley, Vinci faced double break point. Pennetta stung a strike down the line breaking for a 2-0 second-set lead. Applying her touch with a drop shot to draw the finesse player forward, Pennetta shoveled a backhand pass down the line holding for 3-0.
Dialing in her backhand, Pennetta drilled her two-hander down the line for double break point. When Vinci’s backhand expired in the middle of the net, Pennetta pumped her fist toward her box holding a 4-0 double-break lead two games from the title. Snapping off a smash, Vinci broke back to stop a five-game slide. She backed up the break for 2-4.
Tormenting her 5-foot-4 opponent with an exquisite stretched lob, Pennetta held for 5-4. As an ominous cluster of clouds shrouded the sky directly overhead, Pennetta could clearly see the finish line looming four points away.
Her good friend turned her back as Pennetta pounded a smash for triple championship point. Slashing an inside-out forehand to end a 93-minute farewell, a beaming Pennetta flung her Wilson Blade aside raised her arms then trotted over to her support box to hug her coach and boyfriend.
It was a wondrous end to a wild US Open in which Pennetta survived a drone crashing into the stands during one of her night matches and dispatched two Grand Slam champions—Samantha Stosur and Petra Kvitova—in succession before playing one of the best matches of her career thrashing No. 2-seeded Simona Halep in the semifinals.
All this from a woman who was on the verge of retirement just three years ago.
Sidelined while recovering from right wrist surgery in September of 2012, Pennetta was armed with a remote control on her couch and watched Victoria Azarenka serve for the US Open title before Serena Williams rallied for a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory.
A tearful Pennetta wept in solitude that day contemplating the bleak prospect her career was over.
“[It] was not easy, I can tell you. I cry a lot,” Pennetta said recalling her first brush with retirement. “But I love this sport. I would like to have a chance just to prove myself. I try my best.”
On this day, the woman who began the tournament as a 150-1 longshot to take the title gave herself the best possible retirement party.
“With this, winning today my life is perfect,” Pennetta said. “Perfect.”