In an era that was being dominated so strongly by Serena Williams, winning a Grand Slam singles title was a tough ask for anyone else. Marion Bartoli and Sam Stosur won their only Grand Slam titles during this period of dominance but there was one winner that was an even bigger surprise. Flavia Pennetta entered the US Open in 2015 as the 26th seed and defied the odds to become only the second Italian woman in history to win a Grand Slam singles title. Whilst making her own piece of history, Serena was being prevented from making hers, in what became a story that nobody had predicted.
Pennetta was 33 years old when the US Open began that year and although the tournament had been kind to her in previous years, she was by no means the favourite. She had reached the quarter finals on four previous occasions in New York and even made the semi-finals in 2013 where she was defeated by Victoria Azarenka in straight sets. Apart from a quarter final appearance at the Australian Open in 2014, none of the Grand Slams outside of the US had ever been kind to her in the singles.
2015 had seen Serena exercise another wave of dominance over the world of tennis and it was stronger than ever before. After winning the US Open in 2014 she went on to win the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon in 2015, therefore completing the ‘Serena Slam’ where she held all four Grand Slam titles at once. As the media descended upon Flushing Meadows in late August 2015, all the hype was around Serena and the expectation that she would retain her title and complete the ‘Calendar Slam’, something that only Margaret Court and Steffi Graf had achieved in the Open era.
The tournament was littered with talent, as always but big names were starting to fall in just the first few days. Four of the top ten seeded players were knocked out in the first round, Lucie Safarova, Ana Ivanovic, Karolina Pliskova and Carla Suarez Navarro. With further casualties in round two, only three of the top ten players remained by the time the third round began. Serena was beginning to look like a certainty to write her name in the history books yet again by adding the ‘Calendar Slam’ feather to her cap.
Pennetta was quietly going about her business in the first three rounds and due to the surprise defeat of Caroline Wozniacki, she did not meet a seeded player until the fourth round. The Italian was not exactly making headlines though as she dropped a set in two of her opening three matches and with the seeded players struggling, it seemed only a matter of time until she was defeated.
Round four would see her meet Sam Stosur who was US Open champion in 2011 after she defeated Serena in the final that year, 6-2, 6-3. Pennetta had her number though and charged to a straight sets win to set up a quarter final meeting with another former Grand Slam champion, Petra Kvitova. If the early rounds had put her up against lesser opponents, the later rounds were proving to be a much trickier proposition.
Despite being down a set and a break of serve, Pennetta used all of her experience and talent to bounce back to take the match in three sets. Whilst her semi-final match against the second seed, Simona Halep proved to be her most convincing win of the tournament and a surprising landslide in the Italian’s favour, something quite remarkable happened in the other semi-final. Roberta Vinci, who was unseeded, had come back from a set down to completely stun Serena, the US crowd and the whole world by winning in three sets. Serena was inconsolable after the match, whilst Vinci who had primarily been seen as a doubles specialist, was almost speechless.
Pennetta and Vinci had set up an unlikely all-Italian US Open final and the winner would become the first female ever to win their first Grand Slam title after passing the age of 30. Pennetta was victorious in straight sets to cap off what had been a fantastic two weeks to tennis from her. Her title win though will be remembered for other things rather than her defeating Stosur, Kvitova and Halep just to even reach the final. Many people will remember Vinci defeating Serena, Serena missing out on the ‘Calendar Slam’, Pennetta announcing her retirement during her victory speech and the smiles between Pennetta and Vinci after the match. It was a tournament of drama and the tennis that Pennetta played is perhaps not what will be remembered the most and that is a great shame.
Quite what Pennetta and Vinci did for Italian women’s tennis during that fortnight will not be fully known for many years to come. If seeing Pennetta lift the US Open trophy in front of the world and secure a cheque for over $3m has inspired young girls in Italy to pick up a racquet then that can only be good for tennis and for Italy. Pennetta may be remembered as the woman that won the 2015 US Open but she has also been a champion in other ways.
In 1999 she won the French Open in girls’ doubles with a certain Roberta Vinci and that success translated to senior level when she became the Australian Open doubles champion in 2011 with Gisela Dulko. As the years went by it seemed as though her success in the doubles was going to overshadow what a quality singles player she had become. With 11 WTA singles titles during her career and 14 WTA doubles titles, it is fair to say that Pennetta was an all-rounder in the truest sense of the word.
During the latter stages of her career, Pennetta developed a taste for upsetting the odds as she won the 2014 Indian Wells title as the 20th seed, defeating Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska, the top two seeds, in the process. Another achievement that should not be forgotten is her Fed Cup record, a tournament that she won four times and retired with a record of 25 wins and just five losses.
When the US Open began in 2015, many people did not expect Pennetta to be the eventual champion but no one can deny that her success was deserved. The signs were always there that she may produce something special one day with her constant forays into the latter stages of the US Open, her doubles success and her WTA singles titles racking up over the years. At 33 years old she achieved the ultimate and retired on the highest note possible. Now happily married and with a baby on the way, life may be a little different these days but history will never forget what she achieved, not only in 2015, but during a hugely successful career.
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