It was a U.S. Open final no one expected and – in the U.S. – not many wanted but Flavia Pennetta could not care less.
Pennetta beat childhood pal and fellow Italian Roberta Vinci 7-6 (4) 6-2 in the title match in New York, a day after the runner-up engineered one of the biggest shocks in tennis history by ousting Serena Williams.
Speaking of shocks, Pennetta then said in her on-court interview Saturday she was retiring from tennis. At first it was thought Pennetta was stopping now but she later told reporters she’ll finish the season.
She made the decision at a tournament in Toronto last month.
“Sometimes it’s getting hard for me to compete,” Pennetta said, referring to the mental struggle of playing tennis throughout the 11-month season. “I don’t feel to have this power anymore sometimes.
“So this is the perfect moment. Was a really hard decision to make, but I’m happy that I did it. I’m really happy and proud of myself.”
Pennetta, who will turn 34 in February and almost quit the game two years ago because of a wrist injury, became the oldest first-time grand slam champion in the Open Era.
All of Italy rejoiced having two home-grown players in the final – Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi even flew to the Big Apple for the unprecedented occasion – but pockets of Arthur Ashe stadium, the largest regularly used stadium in tennis with a capacity of about 23,000, were empty.
Had the U.S.’s Williams reached the final, it certainly wouldn’t have been the case. Chasing a calendar-year grand slam heading into the year’s last major, the women’s final at the U.S. Open sold out prior to the men’s for the first time.
U.S.A. Today reported that after Williams topped older sister Venus in the quarterfinals, the average ticket price soared from around $600 to $1,500. After Vinci stunned Williams on Friday, though, tickets could be purchased for $45, the Associated Press reported.
Besides the omission of 21-time grand slam winner Williams, the U.S. Open final featured two players ranked outside the top 20 for the first time since rankings were introduced. They used to be, however, No. 1 players in doubles.
Fans that did show up, and they were plenty nonetheless – including actors Robert Redford and Michael Douglas – saw Pennetta handle the moment better.
She was also able to handle Vinci’s backhand slice, the most recognized part of the world No. 43’s game. The slice, at times, befuddled Williams and helped to coax 40 unforced errors Friday.
Vinci just wasn’t the same player.
“I was tired,” Vinci said. “Especially the first set.”
Yet the statistics always suggested Pennetta was the favorite. She was better ranked, at 26th, won one of the most prestigious tournaments outside the majors at Indian Wells last year, reached the top 10 in 2009 and held a 5-3 record versus the 32-year-old Vinci. Further, the U.S. Open has by far been her most successful grand slam.
And now she’s Italy’s second women’s grand slam singles champion, following in the quick footsteps of Francesca Schiavone, and back in the top 10.
Vinci didn’t appear too downbeat, despite the result. She continued to charm reporters with her humor.
“Today probably this is my last cheeseburger,” Vinci said. “Then tomorrow, pasta, real pasta at home.”
Pennetta, a power baseliner with a penetrating backhand, seized the initiative by registering the first break for 3-2, capitalizing on her seventh break chance. Through five games, Vinci didn’t hit a single winner and committed 10 unforced errors.
Mostly untroubled in her service games, Pennetta blew a 40-15 advantage on serve and suddenly the score was level at 4-4.
Onto a tiebreak they went, and Vinci cracked. From 2-2, she donated four unforced errors, including two particularly errant forehands. Pennetta sealed the 60-minute opener with a service winner.
The winner of their three previous head-to-head tiebreaks won the match, and Pennetta, who downed grand slam champions or finalists Petra Kvitova, Sam Stosur and Simona Halep to get to the final, ensured a continuation. With all the momentum, she stormed to a 4-0 lead in the second.
Pennetta fended off a fightback by holding for 5-2 thanks to a fine lob, prompting an emphatic fist pump in a match otherwise devoid of much outward emotion. She knew the job was almost done.
It was official a game later. Pennetta broke to love, smacking an inside-out forehand winner on match point, before flinging her racket in the air and exchanging a long hug with Vinci at the net. She kissed her boyfriend, men’s pro, Fabio Fognini, who was in the player box in the stands.
Waiting for the trophy presentation and in a rare occurrence among pros, Pennetta and Vinci sat together. Pennetta called Vinci one of her best friends on tour; they hail from the same region, Puglia, in Italy and were roommates in their junior days.
“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 something amazing. I didn’t think to be here. She didn’t think to be here. It’s amazing for our country.”
Sunday’s men’s final sees two familiar names play for the championship. Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, faces Roger Federer for the second successive time to cap a grand slam.
Djokovic, only the second man in the last 45 years after Federer to make all four grand slam finals in one season, prevailed at Wimbledon and is seeking a 10th grand slam crown.
The evergreen Federer, 34, tries for a men’s record extending 18th and first since 2012.
Pennetta can say she has one before her career concludes.