Friday, September 11, 2015

Never, EVER underestimate a Fighting Italian

For several years now, a tiny corner of my mind has sheltered a belief that Flavia Pennetta could win the U.S. Open. Not a destiny thing, like I thought about Marion Bartoli and Wimbledon, but more of a glimpse at possibility. She now has an opportunity to do just that, only first, she'll have to get past....Roberta Vinci?!

It was a day of total carnage at the U.S. Open. Scheduled to be played last night, the  women's semifinals had to be moved to today because of the rain. When the matches were rescheduled, their order was reversed, and--as I discussed with a friend today--that rearrangement might have made a difference in today's outcome.

Flavia Pennetta, the Queen of Fed Cup (now sharing her reign with co-queen Petra Kvitova, whom Pennetta conveniently removed from the U.S. Open quarterfinals), came to New York with a 3-1 record against Halep, and quickly became the number 2 seed's worst nightmare when they faced off today in Arthur Ashe Stadium. This is nothing new: the 33-year-old Italian is comfortable in the role of "worst nightmare."

Halep couldn't handle the pressure (how many times have I written that in the last several months?) as she competed against a player who just about never beats herself. It took Pennetta, the 26th seed at the Open, just under an hour to crush Halep 6-1, 6-3. It was a confident and efficient performance that resulted in 23 winners and only 16 unforced errors. No one moves as well as Halep, but Pennetta repeatedly flummoxed the Romanian by blasting forehands and then cleaning up at the net. It didn't help that Halep's demons were practically dancing on the tramlines while she played.

That was an upset, of course, though not a stunning one, since Pennetta came in with such a good record against Halep and the Italian plays her best tennis at the U.S. Open. The upset was yet to come.

Returning to my second paragraph--the matches were reset in reverse order, so Pennetta's countrywoman, Roberta Vinci, came onto the court in Ashe Stadium after Pennetta had beaten Halep. The Italians, like the Czechs, give life to one another on these big occasions. The unseeded Vinci was undoubtedly inspired by what Pennetta had just done. She played world number 1 Serena Williams without fear, and with a good deal of guile. And while Vinci's performance will be noted for the considerable doubles skills the Italian put to use, what was remarkable was how well Vinci was able to return Williams' serve. Vinci kept herself in the point, and was then able to create problems for Williams to solve. Many of those problems involved the 32-year-old Italian's superb backhand slice.

Williams has looked vulnerable throughout the tournament, but that isn't unusual. She's the kind of champion who works her way into a major, and the common wisdom is, if you don't take her out in the first week, she's unbeatable. This time around, Bethanie Mattek-Sands took a set off a her, as did her sister, Venus, in the quarterfinals. But none of that foretold what would happen today.

Williams needed to win the U.S. Open in order to achieve the Grand Slam (and hey, commentators and writers, it's not the "Calendar Year Grand Slam"). She had already locked in her second "Serena Slam," winning four majors in a row, and was on the verge of doing what no WTA player had done since Steffi Graf won the Golden Slam in 1988. But a Fighting Italian stood in her way.

This match will be deconstructed until kingdom come, but the simple answer is this: Williams was tight, with so much on the line, and Vinci, following the "nothing to lose" formula--and inspired by her countrywoman's very recent upset over the world number 2--simply "played her game"--and a little extra. Sport is cruel, and while no one (including me) expected this to happen, it did.

For those of us who have been following Williams for years, Vinci's serving for the match at 5-4 (after failing to break Williams) appeared to mean relatively little. How many times have we seen someone serve for the match against Serena, only to have Serena break her, and then go on to win the match with a win and a break and another win? Countless. Even when Vinci reached 40-0 on her serve, I thought Serena would turn things around. But she didn't. Vinci was committed to winning at this point, and her final half-volley was a testament to how much she believed in her own game.

Both Pennetta and Vinci have been ranked number 1 in doubles--Pennetta with Gisela Dulko, and Vinci with Sara Errani (who was Pennetta's doubles partner in the U.S. Open). Both have won majors in doubles. Both have been instrumental in leading Italy to its four Fed Cup championships. Pennetta leads Vinci 5-4, and they are 1-1 in hard court matches. This is the first time that either of them has reached a major final. This occasion marks the first time that two Italians have competed in the U.S. Open final. It is also the first time in the Open Era that two players over 30 have competed in the final. Despite all the dashed expectations about this tournament, it turns out that this final is also a historic occasion.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

Flavia Pennetta
round 1--def. Jarmila Gajdosova
round 2--def. Monica Niculescu
round 3---def. Petra Cetkovska
round of 16--def. Sam Stosur (22)
quarterfinals--def. Petra Kvitova (5)
semifinals--def. Simona Halep (2)

Roberta Vinci
round 1--def. Vania King
round 2--def. Denisa Allertova
round 3--def. Mariana Duque-Marino
round of 16--def. Genie Bouchard (25) (walkover)
quarterfinals--def. Kristina Mladenovic
semifinals--def. Serena Williams (1)


Unknown said...

Congrats to Pennetta and Vinci on a tennis lifetime dream. They both took the highly un-probable and made it possible. Also, congrats to S. Williams, two Serena Slams and after tomorrow she'll still hold three of the four majors. Looking forward to the Pennetta and Vinci final, Pennetta in straight sets.

Diane said...

You called it!