Instead, we had a delightful final today between two spirited Italians who could never have envisioned themselves out on such a prominent stage with so much at stake. The notion that they would be playing for the last Grand Slam championship of 2015 was beyond their wildest dreams. But that is precisely what happened. To be sure, this will not go down in historical annals as a memorable final when measured strictly in terms of the tennis. Vinci was uptight from the beginning, unable to replicate the form that carried her past Serena in such startling fashion a day earlier, uncertain about how to proceed against a countrywoman who knows her game inside out. Pennetta had her own issues with nerves as well, although she controlled them beautifully.
This match did not feature the explosive, big hitting to which we have grown accustomed in the modern women’s game. There was no Serena to serve prodigiously and knock the cover off the ball, no Maria Sharapova to pummel away incessantly from the backcourt with brilliance and fury, no Petra Kvitova to sprinkle the court with dazzlingly potent winners. This was a duel that surely appealed to club players wanting to relate to what the players were doing. Here was Pennetta, driving the ball with moderate yet not undue force off both sides, a masterful percentage player. She has displayed her strategic acumen and sound shotmaking for many years in New York. Prior to this tournament, the 33-year-old had been a paragon of consistency at the Open; in her six previous visits, she had been to four quarterfinals and one semifinal.
Meanwhile, there was Vinci, a career Grand Slammer in doubles but a singles player who had enjoyed only modest success. Her semifinal appointment with Williams marked the first time that she had gone that far at a major. And yet, the exuberant Italian handled the moment with remarkable grace, and thus headed into her appointment with Pennetta somewhat apprehensive but still determined to enjoy the occasion as much as possible. At 32, she knows that it is highly unlikely that will ever find herself in such a position again. To share this experience with a player she has known since their days as juniors only made it all the more special for Vinci.
There was no question in my mind that Pennetta was the favorite, but it was a difficult match to forecast because there were good reasons to trust in both individuals. Pennetta had the better run across the last fortnight. She upended three seeds—No. 2 Halep, No. 5 Kvitova, and 2011 champion Sam Stosur. Vinci benefitted from some good fortune. She got a default from Eugenie Bouchard in the round of 16 when the Canadian had to bow out with a concussion suffered in a locker room fall. Otherwise, Vinci never shined that brightly until she played the match of her life to oust Williams 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. If she could have remained in an almost unconscious state and had been able to perform beyond her customary powers against Pennetta, then perhaps Vinci would have taken the title.
But that was not the case. It was apparent from the outset that both players were understandably tense, but that Vinci had a much more severe case of apprehension than her adversary. Yet she still managed to hold at love in the first game before Pennetta held easily at 15. Not until 2-2 was there a service break. In a five deuce game, Pennetta broke through on her seventh break point to take a 3-2 lead. Both players performed with excess caution, but it was Pennetta who persisted to move out in front, and then she surged to 4-2.
Now Pennetta had a lapse. After Vinci held in the seventh game, Pennetta went to 4-3, 40-15, but rolled a forehand long and double faulted. Pennetta had two more game points but did not exploit those openings and a resourceful Vinci sunk her teeth into the match, rallying for 4-4. Both players held twice to set up a tie-break. As is so often the case, that sequence would be pivotal in determining the winner of this final. They had fought long and hard. The set would last a full hour. Neither player could afford a setback here.
Pennetta fully understood the importance of capturing that tie-break. She gained the first mini-break to lead 3-2 as Vinci erred off the forehand. Pennetta then got to 4-2 on a backhand slice error from Vinci, but Vinci was undeterred. She took the following point and then served at 3-4. Here Pennetta buckled down diligently, playing one of her most solid points of the match. Vinci lost that exchange on a netted forehand. It was 5-3 for Pennetta. Despite dropping the next point, she was unstoppable now. Serving at 5-4, she sent a kicking second delivery high to the Vinci forehand and drew an errant return. Then Pennetta swung a first serve wide in the deuce court with biting slice, and Vinci had no play on the return. Set to the stylish Pennetta, 7-4 in the tie-break.
Pennetta had the upper hand, and she raised her game markedly over the first four games of the second set to break the match wide open. The No. 26 seed held at 30 and then broke at 15 for 2-0, building momentum in the process, edging closer to a title she wanted badly. The third game of that second set was critical. Down 30-40, Pennetta forced Vinci out of position and elicited a running forehand crosscourt error. It was deuce. Vinci missed a forehand return, and now Pennetta put her artistry on full display, sending a forehand drop shot down the line to draw Vinci in, opening up the court for a backhand winner. With that sound and scintillating piece of strategy, Pennetta surged to 3-0.
She was now distancing herself significantly from Vinci. Serving at 0-3, 15-30, Vinci could only stare in distress as Pennetta laced a backhand down the line for a winner. Vinci retaliated with a forehand winner of her own, but Pennetta broke for 4-0 with a finely struck backhand crosscourt return rushing her adversary into a mistake.
Although Vinci commendably collected the next two games, it was apparent that Pennetta was ceding no ground. At 4-2, 40-30, she brought Vinci in on her own terms again with a drop shot. Vinci responded with a deep shot down the middle, but Pennetta lofted an immaculate lob over her opponent’s head with terrific depth. Vinci chased it down, but could not get her shot back in play. Pennetta had moved to 5-2, and she broke at love in the next game, completing a 7-6 (4), 6-2 triumph with three consecutive winners.
She announced after the match that this U.S. Open will be her last major tournament. She will play a few more tournaments this fall on the WTA Tour, but then will pull the curtains on a distinguished career. “This is the perfect moment,” she said. “ It was a really hard decision to make but I’m really happy that I did it. I’m really proud of myself. Winning or losing today, it was not going to change. The decision was already there. If I have to dream about how I want to finish and how I want to stop playing, this is the perfect way.”
She bows out of the Grand Slam tournament game in style. This was her 49th major and her 13th year of competing at the Grand Slam championships. No one had played more majors in the Open Era before breaking through to capture one of the premier prizes. She had only won 10 of 24 career finals on the WTA Tour, but she came through in the single biggest match of her career. Flavia Pennetta had one big chance to take one of the game’s top titles, and she pounced. To put it mildly, that is no mean feat.