Once Upon a Dream in Puglia

by: Peter Bodo | September 04, 2013

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NEW YORK—There were no savage shrieks of “Come on!” or “Vamos!” in this one. No barnyard ululations after every blessed forehand, and not a single clenched fist until shortly after Flavia Pennetta faked a backhand pass and flicked a gorgeous topspin lob that froze her opponent and countrywoman Roberta Vinci at the net on match point.

This was a comprehensive, gratifying and unexpectedly direct 6-4, 6-1 win for Pennetta, but if you’re wondering why it was so free of the familiar histrionics, I have an answer for you. It’s hard to yell and get in the face of a woman who grew up fewer than 50 miles from you, and who was your roommate for four years during the tender years; a 30-year-old woman you’ve been battling in formal competition since age nine—the pro-tour head-to-head is 4-3 for Pennetta, but Ubaldo Scanagatta, the dean of Italian tennis writers, estimates that they’ve played some 25 times. The woman with whom you once hid cookies under your pillow to get around the Spartan diet imposed by your Italian tennis federation overseers.

These two women go back so far together that it gives Pennetta an edge denied many of their peers, who are so persistently flummoxed by Vinci’s kaleidoscopic game. As Pennetta explained after the match: “I know her (Vinci) really well and she know me really well, so most of the time when she want to make a dropshot I know it.” Pennetta smiled, like a girl confessing a secret. “I know it’s going to be a dropshot. . . We grow up together. I know how she play, and she know everything of me.”

It’s too bad that this match of many resonances between two natives of the Puglia region was first on the Ashe card today. With all due respect to the “little beast” David Ferrer and that man of many flourishes, Richard Gasquet, the match between No. 10 seeded Vinci and the struggling, resurgent veteran Pennetta, fallen from the Top 10 to No. 83 (partly due to injury), was a pairing made to celebrate. 

It isn’t just that these two distinguished veterans, both running out of career string (At 31, Pennetta is little older than Vinci), have so much common history. They’ve also been central players in the captivating story of Italy’s recent transformation into a legitimate tennis power. 

This quarterfinal was the third successive match in which Vinci had to meet a fellow Italian in this tournament, which isn’t as coincidental as it may sound and must give USTA officials heartburn. Italy had six women (and five men) in the main draw, five of them destined to be in the Top 40 when the next WTA rankings are issued. In recent years, Italy has punched above its weight in sundry ways.

In Fed Cup, Italy is in the final for the fifth time in eight years (it has won three titles in that span). Francesca Schiavone became the first Italian female Grand Slam champion in 2010 at Roland Garros, and Vinci and Sara Errani—the WTA No. 5 and 2012 French Open runner-up—presently are the top-ranked doubles team in the world. Camilia Giorgi is coming on strong, having upset No. 6 Caroline Wozniacki in the third round with the not-exactly-novel but always effective game plan to “hit every ball in the corner.”

Pennetta, though, is La Mama of the Italian surge. She was the first-ever Italian woman ranked in the singles Top 10, and today she prevented her friend and beloved countrywoman from becoming the fourth one to earn that honor. The match began shortly after noon on a delightfully cool, bright day in New York. In truth, though, it wasn’t much of a match; it lasted all of an hour and five minutes. 

Pennetta had her hair pulled back in a severe bun, while Vinci favored a floppy pony tail—apt symbols for the difference in their styles of play. Compared to the free-flowing and loose (sometimes too loose) Vinci, Pennetta’s game is tightly bound and all about control.

Vinci has a great talent for making others play badly, but on this day her greatest victim was herself. Her baroque sliced backhand cut to the quick, but it was mostly her own blood she spilled. She made 28 unforced errors, 11 more than Pennetta, while hitting just 14 winners, nine fewer than her friend.

Through the first set, the women broke each other five times until Pennetta settled down for good and fought off two break points to win it. She then ran away with it in a 24-minute second set, recording breaks in the first and third games to create an insurmountable lead. On this day, Pennetta proved immune to the poison of Vinci’s game. “Of course I have a different kind of tennis,” Vinci said later. “I think this is my key. Sometimes it helps me, sometimes not, you know. Depends of course on the opponent.”

Pennetta may have Vinci’s game figured out—today it seemed like she had mapped out Vinci’s complete genome—but her respect for it is obvious. Given their longstanding relationship, I asked each of the women to describe the single best feature of the other’s game, and of her personality.

I struck out with Vinci, who merely said, in a tone much less snippy than it might seem in reading: “Well, she’s a great player and a great person. What have I to say? Congrats to her.”

It was only appropriate that La Mama would offer a little more insight. She said: 

“She is so talented, like you cannot see another player like her on the tour. She’s Roberta, and she’s the only one, you know. Like she do different things. Most of the players play really hard in just one way. But she makes so different shots, she comes to the net, unbelievable (one-handed) backhand, and so she is completely different.

“Personally, I think she’s really positive girl. She always try hard to find the light, no? When you see everything really dark, she find the light. So she is always really good person.”

Pennetta was as impressive in press as she was on the court, but this wasn’t her first rodeo, either. Although this is her first semifinal here, it follows her third—and least expected—U.S. Open quarterfinal. As much as she’s struggled in the run-up to the last Grand Slam event of the year, she’s been nothing less than brilliant here. She hasn’t lost a set in successive wins over American wild card Nicole Gibbs, No. 4 seed Errani, two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, and one of the most bright lights in recent months, Simona Halep. And now Vinci.

“From the first day of the tournament I never think to be here and talk about the semifinal,” she admitted. “I just try to keep working and working in the same way every day. I play really good tennis here, I think.”

Pennetta showed very little emotion during the match today, at least until that final, pretty point that found a rooted Vinci gazing at a lob that floated over her head to land well inside the baseline. By the time the ball landed, Pennetta had whirled and allowed herself the luxury of a single, chaste fist pump intended for consumption solely by the members of her support team, which included her father. 

Whether she ends up meeting No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka or dark horse Daniela Hantuchova in the semis, that fist will be, like her person, very well rested.

If you enjoy reading Pete Bodo at TENNIS.com, you might also be interested in his latest novel, The Reckoning. A revised version of this father-son story set in the Rocky Mountains has just been issued by e-publisher Diversion Books. Click here for more on this grand adventure tale, or to download the book.

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