Matteo Renzi’s plans had changed. The Italian prime minister was booked for the opening of an exhibition and conference center in Puglia, the seaside region along Italy’s sun-kissed southeastern coastline, aka, the heel of the boot. But some 4,500 miles away the impossible had happened: two Italian women, Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci, both beyond 30 and supposedly beyond their primes, had defied all prognostications and advanced to the final of the US Open, making it the first all-Italian women’s title match in Grand Slam history.
This was a world-stage showcase for all of Italian sport. Vinci had generated global headlines by cutting off Serena Williams’ historic quest for the calendar year Grand Slam, even meriting the front page of the New York Times. He had to be there. So Renzi, who in 2014 became the youngest PM since Italian unification in 1861, commandeered his nation’s version of Air Force One and, with Italian Tennis Federation chief Angelo Binaghi in tow, headed across the Atlantic.
The move didn’t come without controversy, or as they say in Italian, polemica.
“It's a shame,” said one opposition leader. “If you want to watch a game of tennis, look at it on television. I am happy it is an all-Italian US Open final, but today I would have preferred that the premier would deal with labor issues.”
But nothing was going to keep Renzi from this sporting spectacle, one that would pit two countrywomen who had known each other since they were 9 years old. The first-time Slam finalists had both grown up in Puglia, the very spot where Renzi was supposed to be on Saturday, and had often faced off in junior competition. They were Fed Cup teammates during a dominant run that saw Italy claim four tiles in eight years between 2006 and 2013.
The occasional Italian flag, il Tricolore, was spotted along the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. A pair of fans wore matching green, white and red T-shirts that boasted: ITALY WINS! FLAVIA PENNETTA, ROBERTA VINCI, US OPEN 2015.
It was fitting that the first set came down to a tiebreak between these tenacious fighters, Pennetta serving it out 7-4 when she pulled Vinci wide and forced a forehand return error. Vinci, drained from the miraculous turn of events one day prior, when she had shocked Williams on this very same Arthur Ashe Stadium court, would never work her way back into the match as Pennetta sped out to a quick 4-0 advantage in the second set, and went on to seal the 7-6, 6-2 win. She beat Mother Nature to the punch, too, as rain drops began to fall only minutes after the match was over.
It marked the 435th win of her decade-and-a-half pro career. As we would soon learn, it would also be her last in New York.
A long embrace at the net, and an animated, laughter-filled courtside conversation between victor and vanquished prior to the awards ceremony showed that it was indeed, as those T-shirts had so adeptly predicted, a win for Italy.
Pennetta, 33, had historically saved her best tennis for this time of year, the dog days of summer in New York, where she’d reached the quarterfinals or better in six of the past eight years. But this was new territory for the veteran baseliner, the oldest first-time Grand Slam champion in the Open era (she eclipsed fellow Italian Francesca Schiavone, who won her first and only major at Roland Garros in 2010 when she was 29).
“I never thought I’d go so far. I never thought I’d be a champion. It’s a dream come true,” Pennetta told the crowd. “Always when I was younger I was thinking of becoming No. 1 or winning a Grand Slam. It’s also nice to play with a friend of mine. We know each other since when we were really young.”
But this wasn’t any run-of-the-mill acceptance speech. Pennetta had more to say. Over the past few years, she had spoken of retirement, saying each year that she would make her decision after the US Open. But she kept putting it off. Now came the perfect opportunity.
“This is the way that I would like to say goodbye to tennis,” the 2015 titlist continued, tears welling in her eyes. “I’m really happy. This is what all the players think to want to do. This one was my last match at the US Open and I couldn’t think how to finish in a better way.”
Renzi, at 40 not much older than the newly retired Pennetta, is surely glad he made the flight. He would pose for photos with both titlist and runner-up in the tournament referee’s office after the match, sharing an intimate moment with two players who had represented their country well. He can handle the political fallout; moments like these don’t come along every day.