Flavia Pennetta, 33, and Roberta Vinci, 32, were the oldest first-time Grand Slam finalists in the Open Era, and whoever won would be the oldest first-time champion in the Open Era.
Never before had there been two Italians in the same Major semi-finals let alone in the final. This was, in short, a first for Italy and for Grand Slam history, and there was more. These two slight, elegant, exuberant Italian women—great friends, fellow Fed Cup champions, former Grand Slam doubles champions—were doing it after 15 years on the pro tour. With a combined age of over 66, theirs was the oldest Grand Slam final in the Open Era.
Their route to this fairytale ending was equally remarkable.
The No26 ranked Pennetta had beaten two Grand Slam champions, the No22 seed Sam Stosur and No5 Petra Kvitova, before taking out the world No2, Simona Halep, a woman a decade her junior.
The unseeded Vinci, ranked just 43, had taken advantage of an easier path through a quarter where most of the big names fell early. She got a bye in the fourth round when Eugenie Bouchard withdrew with a head injury—but make no mistake, this petite packet of old-fashioned serve-and volley, all-court skill caused the biggest upset not just of this year’s tournament but the entire year. Vinci beat home favourite, the world No1 Serena Williams, to become only the third woman in 2015 to beat the defending champion, and in so doing, drew a line under the American’s campaign for the Calendar Slam.
And against the odds, she still had the Arthur Ashe stadium in the palm of her hand in a show-stopper of an on-court interview: “I’m sorry, but today is my day, the best day of my life!” New York embraced her, as they had embraced Pennetta just hours before.
For the “home of the brave” was loving what they saw, a spirit spelled out in a wave of ink along Vinci’s arm: “However long it takes you to reach the summit, just keep walking and don’t think about it.”
Both freely admitted that they had not expected to get so far, let alone find a friend and compatriot on the other side of the net—though as it happens their only contest in the last five years had been at this very tournament, in the quarter-finals—the furthest Vinci had ever got, and after her win, the furthest Pennetta had ever got.
So unexpected was the moment that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi caught a flight to see it, and even Pennetta’s partner, the No32 seed in the men’s draw who had made a little US Open history of his own in beating Rafael Nadal in five sets, only just made it back from Italy in time.
With everyone in their rightful place, then, the first set proved highly competitive, though both players began tentatively in a full hour of swinging fortunes.
A tense fifth game seemed to establish the advantage for Pennetta when she managed to break on the seventh break point, and then consolidated with a love hold, 4-2. But Pennetta’s nerves took hold, her backhand let her down, and Vinci broke back. It went to a tie-breaker, which Pennetta took, 7-6(4).
The style of the set was writ large over the stats: Vinci came to the net 18 times, winning half of them, but Pennetta was almost flawless in her forward ventures, 10 from 12—and she made another half dozen net winners as she rode her momentum through the second set.
Pennetta broke twice for a 4-0 lead, and although Vinci made one immediate break back, she looked the more tired of the two and was making more errors—she would end the match with 30 of them. Pennetta broke one more time, with a forehand winner, to claim not only the set and the match, 6-2, but a small place in history: the oldest first-time Grand Slam champion.
They embraced at the net as only old friends can, and an uninformed onlooker may have found it hard to determine the victor until Pennetta wheeled back onto court, hands clasped to her face in joy.
And they both charmed again with their smiles, mutual affection and wit as they readied to collect the spoils of their Indian summer efforts.
Pennetta began: “I have to say, before the tournament, I never though I would be so far, to be the champion. It’s a big surprise for me… When I was young, I was always thinking to be No1 and win a Grand Slam. I also wanted to win Rome, but a Grand Slam is maybe a little better! But it’s a dream come true.”
But the champion had already whispered another message to her friend that she now announced to a stunned tennis community around the world: “One month ago, I made a big decision in my life, that this is the way I would like to say goodbye to tennis. This is what all players like to do, go home with a big trophy. This was my last match at the US Open, and I can’t think of finishing in a better way.”
She later affirmed that she would play until the end of this season, and with a No8 ranking on the Road to Singapore come Monday, perhaps she has in mind one more big tick on her resume before she hangs up her racket: a place in the year-end climax, the WTA Championships.
But one senses that this popular, fairytale champion will be content with whatever else the rest of her career brings.
And what of her friend? She struggled to find the words to express her feelings, and looked forward to her return home: “I think it’s an incredible moment for all Italian people. Now when I come back home, I can realise what we made, because now for me it is not normal… I would like to come back and try to understand what I did.”
But in the end, she did capture the magic of this Italian story perfectly. What had this day proved? “Miracles can happen.”
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge