Thursday, October 29, 2015

The original Fighting Italian leaves the battlefield

Flavia Pennetta, the woman who put the fight in "Fighting Italian," has reached the end of her professional tennis career. Pennetta made the very public announcement of her retirement during the U.S. Open trophy ceremony, right after she won the biggest prize of her long and very impressive career. At age 33, she ends that 15-year career on a very high note.

Pennetta will be remembered for many things--her consistently tough singles play, her championship doubles performances, her gritty and painful career comebacks, and--perhaps most of all--her domination of Fed Cup. She was one of a group of four I have long called Fighting Italians, a group which included Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci (and later, Camila Giorgi, who--while she lacks some other qualities--has a high volume of the Italian fight in her blood). These were the women who led Italy to four Fed Cup victories.

Long known on this blog as the Queen of Fed Cup (Petra Kvitova later became the co-queen), Pennetta approached the competition with warrior-like intensity. When things got shaky, the team could count on Pennetta to go in, win a rubber, and get things back on an even keel. Her facial expressions alone had to put fear into whoever was on the other side of the net (in fact, the Pennetta Snarl merits somewhere around an 8.5 on the Bartoli Death Glare Scale).

The Queen of Fed Cup went 6-0 in 2010, when Italy won its third championship. Her Fed Cup record for both singles and doubles is 25-5, and that includes 21-4 in singles.

Though the Fighting Italian's career was sometimes taken down by injury, it was unwise to count her out, because she always came back stronger. She advanced to the top 30 in 2005 and stayed there in 2006, but lost half of that season because of a left wrist injury. When Pennetta returned the next season, she came close to falling out of the top 100, but--Fighting Italian that she is--she wound up in the top 40.

The next two years were stand-outs for the Pennetta, who entered the top 20, and, in 2009, became the first Italian woman in history to enter the top 10.

2012 was a difficult year for Pennetta. A back injury kept her out for a while at the beginning of the season, and then she injured her right wrist and had to have surgery, which kept her off of the tour for six months. Pennetta considered retiring from the sport, but changed her mind, and that has to be one of the most fortuitous mind-changes in tennis history. In 2014, she won the singles title in Indian Wells, defeating 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, Sloane Stephens and top seed Li Na. Pennetta was seeded 20th in the tournament, which is one of the most prestigious events on the tour's calendar.

Pennetta's 2015 season didn't go that well--until it was time to play in the U.S. Open. The Fighting Italian had made up her mind that this would be her last season, and--in what I now think of as typical Pennetta fashion--she made one more comeback, and this one was epic. Seeded 26th, Pennetta took out Stosur again, then defeated both 5th seed Petra Kvitova and 2nd seed Simona Halep. Her last task was to beat countrywoman and friend Roberta Vinci, and she did just that, making her the first Italian woman to win the U.S. Open. She also became the oldest woman to win a first major, and the player who performed in the most majors (49) before winning one.

Pennetta's doubles career was also a great one. The Italian star won titles with several players, but is probably best known for her pairing with the hard-hitting Gisela Dulko. Dulko and Pennetta seemed like they were born to play doubles together, and were a lot of fun to watch. I once had the pleasure of watching them play an exhibition match, and while I generally cannot abide watching exhibition matches, the Argentine and the Italian were so hilarious that even I was won over. Dulko and Pennetta won the Australian Open in 2011, and Pennetta came close to winning the U.S. Open (with Martina Hingis) in 2014.

Flavia Pennetta finishes her career in possession of 11 singles titles and 17 doubles titles. She was part of the Italian Fed Cup team for a total of 11 years, and she was a member of the Italian Olympic team in both 2008 and 2012. Pennetta was awarded the title of Knight of Order of Merit of the Republic by her country. This is the highest order that can be bestowed on an Italian citizen.

Pennetta's record is very impressive, but it doesn't really reflect what made her so popular with both fans and peers (who expressed extreme affection for her when she won the U.S. Open and announced her retirement). Her fierce backhand, potent forehand and excellent net skills tell part of the story, but the other, more elusive part has to do with carisma, and with strength of heart. Flavia never gave up, never minced words, never wasted her energy on insignificant drama, and never let anything interfere with her sense of humor. Her natural intelligence shown through every match she played and every interview she gave.

“I'm really proud to be strong all the time," Pennetta said today after her loss to Maria Sharapova at the WTA Finals in Singapore ended her career. "I had so many injuries, so many stops in my career. I had to start a few times from nothing." After the match, Pennetta just walked off of the court as she has so many times for 15 years. "I don't like drama, and I don't like to cry," she explained in a press conference. She did leave room, however, for the possibility of getting a formal sendoff in Rome.

When she announced her retirement, Pennetta said "I don't know what I like to do, so I have to discover." It will be interesting to see what the Fighting Italian's future holds. In the meantime, she will remain a role model for players--and the rest of us--who seek to be strong in every way, both for self and for the team.


Arsdorf said...

A beautifully written, very readable tribute to a player whose skill was exceeded only by her on-court intensity and off-court charm.

Diane said...

Thanks, Arsdorf :) And thanks for reading.

Todd.Spiker said...

Wonderful, Diane. :)

"I'm really proud to be strong all the time."

Words to live by, I suppose. ;)

shalini said...

Thanks Diane for this lovely piece. Penetta has long been one of my favorite players and I couldn't be more thrilled to see her win a slam. I am sad she is retiring but so pleased she was able to do so on such a high note!

Diane said...

Thanks, Todd!

Thank you, too, shalini--I feel as exactly as you do. So proud of her.