Flavia and Francesca.
While the two might be in the wrong business to be known by a single stage name, there is no doubt that Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone have been the faces of Italian women’s tennis for the better part of a decade.
Despite having contrasting styles, each brings something unique to women’s tennis. Schiavone, no doubt the flashier of the two, is the master of an all-court game and a classic clay court style; she uses an extreme Eastern grip on her one-handed backhand, a dying art in women’s tennis. Pennetta, to her credit, possesses some of the most aesthetically pleasing groundstrokes on the WTA; she’s renowned for her great timing, clean strokes, tenacity and net skills. They are similar in one respect; each time they’ve taken the court, they’ve played with immense passion and heart.
They’ve triumphed individually; Pennetta was the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top ten in singles, win a major title in doubles when she triumphed with Gisela Dulko in women’s doubles at the Australian Open in 2011 and be ranked No. 1 in either discipline when she and Dulko topped the women’s doubles list; Schiavone became the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top five in singles and win a singles major title at Roland Garros in 2010. They’ve triumphed together; with a combined a 48-24 total record in Fed Cup, the duo led Italy to three titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010.
Each has had so many standout moments over their long careers that it’s difficult to pick just one. Aside from her major triumph, Schiavone will probably best be remembered for one of the highest quality matches in the history of the WTA, when she and Svetlana Kuznetsova contested the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history at the Australian Open in 2011.
Pennetta, a three-time US Open quarterfinalist, made the most improbable of her three runs in 2011. Following her third round defeat of Maria Sharapova, Pennetta rallied past Peng Shuai, dry heaves and the mid-day New York heat to advance to her third career US Open quarterfinal. Having witnessed the match live, I can scarcely think of many other times when a New York crowd so firmly and whole-heartedly supported a non-American player.
In recent years, however, age and injuries have played their part. Barely hanging on to her spot in the top 100, Pennetta returned from a six month absence after wrist surgery in Acapulco, where Schiavone won back-to-back matches for the first time since Wimbledon. In that time, Italian women’s tennis had been overtaken by another dynamic duo.
Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci spent a lot of time during those three Fed Cup title runs cheering on the sidelines. However, they’ve taken the mantle vacated by Schiavone and Pennetta and firmly seized control of it. Errani became the second Italian woman to reach a major final, something some expected Pennetta to do. Vinci, despite being just a year younger than Pennetta, has had the best 18 months of her singles career. They show no signs of slowing down in doubles either, as they currently hold three of the four majors and are the undisputed No. 1 team in the world.
In the first round of Fed Cup, it was Errani and Vinci who singlehandedly led Italy over the United States and instead, Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett cheered from the sidelines. It was the first time neither Pennetta nor Schiavone were named to an Italian Fed Cup team in over 10 years; one or the other was always a constant presence since Schiavone made her debut in 2002, and Pennetta a year later in 2003.
On a Wednesday in Indian Wells, these two WTA stalwarts, Fed Cup teammates and friends took the court for a singles match for the first time in three years. After Schiavone defeated Pennetta 7-5, 6-1 in a non-televised match under the setting California sun, one couldn’t help but wonder if the sun is also setting on their time at the top of the game. Whatever happens at the end of this season, it would be fitting for two of the WTA’s strongest characters to leave the sport the way they entered it.
Flavia Pennetta has been a force on the WTA Tour for over ten years, but she only broke through the top echelons of women’s tennis back in 2009 when she became Italy’s first top 10 singles player in history. I had a chance to chat with the bubbly, pleasant, and smiling Flavia during the Sony Ericsson Open as she shared insights about her unforgettable 2009 U.S. Open match against Vera Zvonareva, dancing, beach volleyball, Monica Seles and Angelina Jolie.
What is your most memorable moment on court?
U.S. Open against Vera Zvonareva in 2009. Was a really nice match. I won 6-0 in the third set with 7, or 6, match points.
Is that the one in which Vera was ripping the tape off her knees?
How was that experience in the moment?
It was intense. It was good for me because I won, but not for her. (Laughs)
What is the best part of being a tennis player?
To have the chance to travel and see different places and meet different people, so that when you stop playing, you have friends everywhere. (Laughs)
If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be?
I always like different sports. Maybe I would play volleyball or horse (be an equestrian).
Do you like to cross-train with volleyball?
I love to play beach volleyball when I’m at the beach. (Laughs)
If you could play against any player in history, who would it be and why?
(Long pause) Maybe … I never played against Monica Seles. I met her because I was at the tour during the last two years she was playing. She was my idol when I was young, and I never played against her, so maybe against her.
She did that show, like “Dancing with the Stars.”
I didn’t see her! But they told me she was really good.
Would you ever want to do that?
Ooof! (Laughs) Maybe one single time, I can do that. But if it’s every Saturday like it is in Italy, would be tough. But one time? Would be fun.
If you are hosting a party, what three tennis players would you invite and why?
My friends. Gisela [Dulko] for sure! (Thinking) Gisela … Gisela …….. Gisela! Doubles partners are the best. Of course, Francesca. I like to spend time with different people, but most of the time I like to be with my friends because it would be the most beautiful party.
Do you have any superstitions on court?
No. Well, on court? (Pause) No. I’m not …. No. (Laughs)
If you could have dinner with any three people, who would it be and why?
Brad Pitt. And also Angelina [Jolie]. She’s nice, really nice. I like her a lot.
Did you meet her ever?
No, but I have one friend who is a friend of Angelina’s and she told me Angelina is a really nice person. I really like her when I watch her on TV because I think she is a really good actress, but I’ve never met her. So maybe when you meet someone … they maybe will disappoint. Most of the time it’s like this, because when you feel so much respect for someone, you just think ‘They are going to be perfect’ and then when you meet them, it’s not like this. So you get disappointed.
I think I would also like to eat with Valentino Rossi because he is one of my best friends. So, I love to spend with him. And another one? Wait, I said three.
Well, and my mom. (Laughs)