Thursday, October 29, 2015

The original Fighting Italian leaves the battlefield

Flavia Pennetta, the woman who put the fight in "Fighting Italian," has reached the end of her professional tennis career. Pennetta made the very public announcement of her retirement during the U.S. Open trophy ceremony, right after she won the biggest prize of her long and very impressive career. At age 33, she ends that 15-year career on a very high note.

Pennetta will be remembered for many things--her consistently tough singles play, her championship doubles performances, her gritty and painful career comebacks, and--perhaps most of all--her domination of Fed Cup. She was one of a group of four I have long called Fighting Italians, a group which included Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci (and later, Camila Giorgi, who--while she lacks some other qualities--has a high volume of the Italian fight in her blood). These were the women who led Italy to four Fed Cup victories.

Long known on this blog as the Queen of Fed Cup (Petra Kvitova later became the co-queen), Pennetta approached the competition with warrior-like intensity. When things got shaky, the team could count on Pennetta to go in, win a rubber, and get things back on an even keel. Her facial expressions alone had to put fear into whoever was on the other side of the net (in fact, the Pennetta Snarl merits somewhere around an 8.5 on the Bartoli Death Glare Scale).

The Queen of Fed Cup went 6-0 in 2010, when Italy won its third championship. Her Fed Cup record for both singles and doubles is 25-5, and that includes 21-4 in singles.

Though the Fighting Italian's career was sometimes taken down by injury, it was unwise to count her out, because she always came back stronger. She advanced to the top 30 in 2005 and stayed there in 2006, but lost half of that season because of a left wrist injury. When Pennetta returned the next season, she came close to falling out of the top 100, but--Fighting Italian that she is--she wound up in the top 40.

The next two years were stand-outs for the Pennetta, who entered the top 20, and, in 2009, became the first Italian woman in history to enter the top 10.

2012 was a difficult year for Pennetta. A back injury kept her out for a while at the beginning of the season, and then she injured her right wrist and had to have surgery, which kept her off of the tour for six months. Pennetta considered retiring from the sport, but changed her mind, and that has to be one of the most fortuitous mind-changes in tennis history. In 2014, she won the singles title in Indian Wells, defeating 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, Sloane Stephens and top seed Li Na. Pennetta was seeded 20th in the tournament, which is one of the most prestigious events on the tour's calendar.

Pennetta's 2015 season didn't go that well--until it was time to play in the U.S. Open. The Fighting Italian had made up her mind that this would be her last season, and--in what I now think of as typical Pennetta fashion--she made one more comeback, and this one was epic. Seeded 26th, Pennetta took out Stosur again, then defeated both 5th seed Petra Kvitova and 2nd seed Simona Halep. Her last task was to beat countrywoman and friend Roberta Vinci, and she did just that, making her the first Italian woman to win the U.S. Open. She also became the oldest woman to win a first major, and the player who performed in the most majors (49) before winning one.

Pennetta's doubles career was also a great one. The Italian star won titles with several players, but is probably best known for her pairing with the hard-hitting Gisela Dulko. Dulko and Pennetta seemed like they were born to play doubles together, and were a lot of fun to watch. I once had the pleasure of watching them play an exhibition match, and while I generally cannot abide watching exhibition matches, the Argentine and the Italian were so hilarious that even I was won over. Dulko and Pennetta won the Australian Open in 2011, and Pennetta came close to winning the U.S. Open (with Martina Hingis) in 2014.

Flavia Pennetta finishes her career in possession of 11 singles titles and 17 doubles titles. She was part of the Italian Fed Cup team for a total of 11 years, and she was a member of the Italian Olympic team in both 2008 and 2012. Pennetta was awarded the title of Knight of Order of Merit of the Republic by her country. This is the highest order that can be bestowed on an Italian citizen.

Pennetta's record is very impressive, but it doesn't really reflect what made her so popular with both fans and peers (who expressed extreme affection for her when she won the U.S. Open and announced her retirement). Her fierce backhand, potent forehand and excellent net skills tell part of the story, but the other, more elusive part has to do with carisma, and with strength of heart. Flavia never gave up, never minced words, never wasted her energy on insignificant drama, and never let anything interfere with her sense of humor. Her natural intelligence shown through every match she played and every interview she gave.

“I'm really proud to be strong all the time," Pennetta said today after her loss to Maria Sharapova at the WTA Finals in Singapore ended her career. "I had so many injuries, so many stops in my career. I had to start a few times from nothing." After the match, Pennetta just walked off of the court as she has so many times for 15 years. "I don't like drama, and I don't like to cry," she explained in a press conference. She did leave room, however, for the possibility of getting a formal sendoff in Rome.

When she announced her retirement, Pennetta said "I don't know what I like to do, so I have to discover." It will be interesting to see what the Fighting Italian's future holds. In the meantime, she will remain a role model for players--and the rest of us--who seek to be strong in every way, both for self and for the team.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Red, white and--who?

Friday's WTA Finals singles draw resulted in these two round robin groups:

Simona Halep
Maria Sharapova
Agnieszka Radwanska
Flavia Pennetta

Garbine Muguruza
Petra Kvitova
Angelique Kerber
Lucie Safarova

Here is the doubles draw:

Martina Hingis/Sania Mirza
Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic
Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears
Andrea Hlavackova/Lucie Hradecka

Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Lucie Safarova
Chan Hao-Ching/Chan Jung-Jan
Caroline Garcia/Katerina Srebotnik
Garbine Muguruza/Carla Suarez Navarro

Safarova and Muguruza  are doing double duty at the event, playing in both competitions.

Round robin singles play begins in Singapore on Sunday, when Halep and Pennetta hit the first white group balls. The Red Group is interesting in that Radwanska and Pennetta come in with some momentum. Radwanska's season was sub-par until she hit the Asian swing and won Tokoyo. Pennetta won the U.S. Open, is retiring from tennis at the end of the season, and--while I don't like the expression--"nothing to lose" kind of suits her.

Halep and Sharapova, on the other hand, have both been dealing with injury issues; also, Halep has had some problems closing big matches.

Somehow, right-hander Muguruza slipped into the White Group, which is filled with left-handed troublemakers. Kvitova, who has won the event before, will get an automatic boost by playing on an indoor court. Her countrywoman, Safarova, has been recovering from serious illness and expectations regarding her performance are lower than they would have been earlier in the season.

Kerber is always unprdictable, but has had such a good season that she shouldn't be counted out. Muguruza has everyone's attention; the fact that she's in the final eight says it all.

The WTA Finals can never be predicted, however. We're always surprised that "(fill in the blank) lost all 3 of her round rubber matches." Players are tired, players are dealing with a season's worth of injury and rehab, and--to make the question mark bigger this year--world number 1 Serena Williams won't be there.

Of note:

Pennetta has winning records over both Halep and Sharapova.

Kvitova and Muguruza have never before played one another.

In seven tries, Safarova has never beaten Kvitova.

Radwanska and Sharapova have played each other 12 times, and Radwanska has won only two of those matches.

Three of the players--Pennetta, Muguruza and Safarova--are making their WTA Finals debuts.

The Red Group has already distinguished itself: All the players wore black for the draw ceremony, except for Sharapova and Pennetta, who wore black-white combo dresses. A sign of things to come?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Limping toward Singapore

Sometimes I wonder why we have the WTA Finals at all. By this time, players are exhausted and injured, yet they must trudge on to the last big event of the year. Maybe I'm just too influenced by the moment, but 2015 seems worse than usual to me.

Four players have qualified in singles: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova, and Garbina Muguruza. Now subtract Williams because she has withdrawn from the event and ended her season.

Halep will be the top seed in Singapore; however, she's dealing with a foot injury and it's not certain that she'll be able to compete. And even if she's healthy, there's some doubt as to her ability to win the event. The Romanian star apparently didn't get the memo about pressure being a privilege, and she tends to perform stunningly well until she gets to the final segment of a big tournament. On the other hand, Singapore could serve as a turnaround for Halep's career. (I know--she's number 2 in the world! But her career still needs a turnaround--she's that good).

Sharapova has just returned to the court to practice after taking a few months off because of injuries; it's also fair to say that she won't be at her best in Singapore.

Muguruza, who has been out-shone by fellow star-in-the-making Belinda Bencic for much of this season, has suddenly gotten out of her slump--undoubtedly with the help of Sam Sumyk--and is about to play in her second final of the last two weeks. She lost the Wuhan final to Venus Williams, and will face Timea Bacsinszky (also in the middle of a mini-comeback) in the Beijing final.

The Spaniard, who has just entered the top 5, is kind of the wild card of wild cards, everywhere she goes. She could win Beijing, she could win the WTA Finals, she could not win either of them. My instinct, however, is that the round-robin format will agree with Muguruza. And with the two top seeds returning from injury recovery (if they are there at all), Mugurza is in a position to do extremely well.

As of now, the remaining players in the top 8 on the Road To Singapore are Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, and U.S. Open champion Flavia Pennetta. Kvitova won the event in 2011, when it was played in Istanbul. The Barking Czech lost only two sets in that tournament, and beat Victoria Azarenka in the final. Having won a big event in the past is always an advantage, but who knows which Petra will show up, and for how long?

Kvitova's friend and countrywoman, Safarova, was recently hospitalized for a bacterial infection. Assuming she has fully recovered and gets some practice in, Safarova could be threat in Singapore. But an infection that's serious enough to put someone in the hospital can be debilitating.

Kerber is having the season of her career, and though she sometimes loses when we think she "should" win, she's shown that she can collect trophies on all surfaces. Pliskova was in four big finals this year and lost all of them. Playing in Singapore, in a round robin format, might help her with confidence issues. As for Pennetta--assuming she even plays in the WTA Finals if she qualifies--she's the ultimate "nothing to lose" competitor. The Italian star is retiring at the end of the season, which could make her not as focused as needed in Singapore, or deadly. She'll be on a hard court, her favorite.

Next in line right now are Carla Suarez Navarro, Venus Williams and Aga Radwanska. Any of them could make it to Singapore, and of course, there are always alternates.

In the doubles race, six teams have qualified so far. The team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova (those two are ranked number 2 and 3 in the world) has not competed lately because of Safarova's illness. A face-off between them and the team of Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza would be tasty, but that may not happen.