Monday, February 22, 2016
The Zen of the Fighting Italian
Certain things are considered "truth" in tennis:
Older athletes will be defeated by younger ones.
Smaller athletes will not be able to win consistently in today's "power game" culture.
Graceful point constructors cannot prevail over the tactics of "power" players.
Having a weak serve removes a player from the top levels of competition.
Like all so-called "truth," the real power of such maxims often lies in the fact that people believe them. But somewhere in Italy, there's a group of spirited women who load up on pasta, pass around a bottle of red wine, and wholly believe their version of Truth.
And they probably laugh until they cry.
These are the Fighting Italians. For several years now, Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani, and Roberta Vinci have made a specialty of turning Tennis Truth on its head. Schiavone, a player of breathtaking artistry, was in final after final, but could not win a WTA title. But she kept trying, and with the help of her "mental coach," she broke down the barrier that prevented her from being a champion.
In 2010, Schiavone, seeded 17th, stunned the tennis world by winning the French Open, beating the highly favored Samantha Stosur in the final. And, adding to an already poetic occasion, Stosur was the woman who had defeated Schiavone in the first round of the 2009 French Open. "This is mean that everybody have the chance to be who really you want to be, and to do everything in your life. This is what's happen to me," the Italian said after she won.
The image of a joyful Schiavone kissing the clay at Roland Garros is now iconic. 17th seed? 29 years old? Smaller body? Not a power player? Not considered at all likely to win? Non c'è problema!
The definition of "heart" in sports may as well read "see Schiavone."
The woman I originally referred to as a "Fighting Italian" is Flavia Pennetta, whom I also named the Queen of Fed Cup. Pennetta's notable career was derailed several times by serious injury, but she always came back stronger, no matter what she had to do. And even during those times when her WTA mojo was off, she rose to the occasion in Fed Cup competition, leading Italy to four championships.
When wrist surgery prompted Pennetta to seriously consider retiring, she had a change of heart. In 2014, Pennetta won the BNP Paribas Open, one of the most prestigious events in tennis. At this point, the original Fighting Italian had won 10 singles titles and 15 doubles titles, including the 2011 Australian Open (with Gisela Dulko), and she had achieved the distinction of being the first Italian doubles number 1, and the first Italian player to reach the top 10 in singles.
Pennetta would go on to win two more doubles titles (with Martina Hingis) in 2014. Finally, in 2015, at the age of 32, she decided it was time to retire. Pennetta entered the U.S. Open (where she had always played well) as the 26th seed, knowing it was the last time she would compete in Flushing Meadows. And she played well. Before the commentators seemed to notice that she was there, Pennetta knocked off 5th seed Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, and then ran over 2nd seed Simona Halep in the semifinals. In an all-Italian final, she beat friend Roberta Vinci, then picked up her trophy and left the world of professional tennis. It was a stunning occasion.
Vinci wasn't expected to be in the U.S. Open final, either. All she had to do in the semifinals was upset Serena Williams, an accomplishment that left both fans and media in a state of shock. People then wondered whether Vinci, who just turned 33, would be able to "back up" her new fame.
Not that Roberta Vinci had anything to prove to anyone. A former world number 1 in doubles, Vinci and former partner Sara Errani won five majors and achieved the doubles career slam. So far, Vinci has won 25 doubles titles. And until Italy had an unfortunate collision with France's Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic in 2015, the Italian held an 18-0 record in Fed Cup doubles competition.
And that brings me to Errani, who is sometimes known as the WTA's "feisty" player, and who is as well known for her poor serving as she is for her fighting spirit. It's hard to imagine what Errani could do if she had a better serve, or why there hasn't been an improvement in that area. But just by being an outstanding defender and a relentless retriever, Errani has won nine singles titles, and was the French Open runner-up in 2012. She, too, has earned 25 doubles titles.
When Errani won her first singles title in Palermo in 2008, she dedicated her victory to all the people in her country who didn't believe in her. That's a Fighting Italian.
Pennetta, of course, has retired from tennis. 35-year-old Schiavone failed to make it through qualifying at the Australian Open (had she done so, she would have tied Ai Sugiyama for having the most consecutive main draw appearances in majors), and Errani and Vinci have had to deal with the seemingly emotionally-charged breakup of their dominating doubles team. Errani has also been in a notable slump in both singles and doubles. To add insult to injury, France beat Italy again in Fed Cup play, and this time, the damage was done in the opening tie earlier this month.
The Italians were down. And also older, which--for most players--means it becomes harder to bounce back from any type of adversity. But Italy is shaped like a boot for a reason--it's always ready to kick some ass, no matter what the circumstances may be. And The Boot has been in high-gear action for the last couple of weeks.
Last weekend, at age 33, Vinci won her very first premier title at the inaugural St. Petersburg tournament. In doing so, she also became the oldest woman in tour history to make her debut in the WTA top 10. And isn't that just like a Fighting Italian?
But there was more to come. This past Saturday, Errani won the Dubai title--the biggest of her career--and is once again a top 20 (17) player. Then, yesterday, 35-year-old Schiavone won the Rio Open, which puts her back into the top 100. The champion was overcome with joy, in the way that only Schiavone can be overcome with joy. She ran around, yelled, sprayed champagne on people, then drank champagne and doused herself with it. And--in a gesture that spoke volumes about her expectations of herself--she reached into the waistband of her skirt to retrieve her acceptance speech, which she had written in Portuguese.
What is it about these Italians that creates in them the will--and the ability--to win against all odds?
First, they have belief. They can lose matches, be small in weight and stature, sustain multiple injuries, and undergo personal and professional hardships, but they never stop believing that they can win again.
I think that one reason they sustain so much belief is that they are unified. Just as the human heart contains four chambers, the heart of Italy has long contained four chambers--Flavia, Francesca, Roberta, and Sara. And while one of these "chambers," Flavia Pennetta, has left the court, she is most surely with the others in spirit.
They are tough. Think of the Italians, and in your mind's eye, there will be vivid images: Schiavone covered from head to toe with red clay, Pennetta stepping off the court multiple times in an attempt to vomit during a marathon Wimbledon match, Errani fighting back tears as she realizes the pressure she has placed on herself with her own success. Fighting Italians are all in, all the time. They are not impervious to pain--no one is--but they appear to be impervious to defeat of any kind.
They live in the moment. Italians are known for their appreciation of sense and pleasure. What matters is what's happening right now--not what happened in the past or what might occur in the future. There are beautiful clothes to be worn, gatherings to attend, pasta to be eaten, and wine to be drunk. There are also tears to be cried and celebrations to be held. The Italian players are never arriving--they're just there.
Will there be more Fighting Italians? I think there is already one--Camila Giorgi. She has all the qualifications: she's "too small" to hit the ball as hard as she hits it, she has tremendous grit, and--at least for now--she even has to overcome issues with her serve. Though she doesn't yet have either the wounds or the decorations of the Fighting Four, Giorgi has the makings of becoming yet another full-fledged you-know-what.
In the meantime, Schiavone, Errani and Vinci continue to delight the tennis world with comeback after comeback. Because that's what Fighting Italians do.