NEVER had a beaten finalist looked so happy and never had two grand slam opponents seemed so delighted for each other. As Flavia Pennetta, the new US Open champion, and Roberta Vinci, her old pal, waited for the presentation ceremony, they chatted and giggled and then Pennetta dropped her bombshell.
Pennetta, the 7-6, 6-2 winner over Vinci, was calling it a day. That has been her last match in Flushing Meadows. At 33, she was retiring. Vinci, a fellow veteran at the age of 32, looked at her. “No!” she gasped. And then she punched her mate on the arm and started to laugh. It was just another memorable moment for the pair in what had been an unbelievable day.
The match had not been the best – the first set was tense and the second was one-sided – but for Pennetta and Vinci, it had been everything they had hoped it would be. The two women have known each other for a lifetime, starting out together as kids with big hopes and dreams and now they had brought the story to a close with their first grand slam final.
For the first time in the US Open’s history, it had been an all-Italian final and, to mark the occasion, the prime minister, Matteo Renzi, cleared his diary and jumped on a plane to New York. Flanked by the president of the Italian Olympic committee, Giovanni Malago, and the head of the Italian Tennis Federation, Angelo Binaghi, they made their presence felt. “Little Italy” is a neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan; on Saturday, the real Italy, suited and booted, was in the Arthur Ashe stadium. And the very fact that an Italian was going to win was all that mattered to Vinci – she did not seem to mind whether it was her or her friend.
“I think it’s an incredible moment for all Italian people,” Vinci said. “So now when I come back at home, I can realise what we made, because now for me is not normal, no. But I’m in New York, okay, I’m in the hotel, just have fun, but I would like to come back and try to understood what I did.”
For Pennetta, it was the perfect end to her career. At the age of 33, she still loves to travel and to practise but the mental effort of competing week in, week out, has drained her and while she will play until the end of the season, that will be it. She made the decision to retire a month ago, no matter what happened in New York. The fact that she ended up winning was simply the cherry on top of the cake.
“Sometimes it’s getting hard for me to compete,” she said. “This is the important point. When you are in 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 going to be like bad. For me, also. And 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. I think this is the best way. If I have to dream about how I want to finish, I want to stop playing, this is the perfect way.”
The New York crowd can be a parochial bunch – if one of the players in front of them is not American, they are not interested. When Vinci beat Serena Williams on Friday, her triumph was greeted in the local press with the headline: “No-name stops Serena”. But on Saturday, even the New Yorkers could not help but warm to the two Italian friends and their sheer delight in sharing such a moment together.
“We know each other really well,” Pennetta said. “I mean, we have so many things in our life happening together. We spend four years or three years in a house together in the same room in Rome in the Italian Federation [as juniors]. It’s funny to be here today, because we play the first match when we were nine years old in Brindisi, in my country club. So today was a really big day for both of us.
“I didn’t play my best tennis today. I have to say I was scared and tight from the beginning. Was not easy for me to hit the ball in the same way that I did yesterday [against Simona Halep]. Roberta was playing unbelievable. I mean, she was moving good and doing perfect things all the time, but in the second set she start to be a little bit tired. So I was focused and try to push myself to do something more, to going for the match; the match point was perfect. I mean, I push, and I make it.”
Professional sport can be a cutthroat business where perspective is all but lost in the world of over-inflated egos. But for one night only, two veteran Italians changed all of that as they played for their country, for each other and for the sheer joy of being there.
“It’s amazing to have the chance to play with one of your friends,” Pennetta said. “Before the match we say doesn’t matter. We’re going to win. It’s going to be a big win for both of us. It’s going to be a really big win for both of us. It’s something amazing. I didn’t think to be here. She didn’t think neither to be here today. So it’s amazing for our country. Is amazing for everyone.”
Such a day will never come around again – Pennetta’s retirement has seen to that – but for the New York crowd, it was great while it lasted.