Flavia of the Month
Can Pennetta break through the Italians’ Top 10 Pain Barrier?
By Chris Bowers, Special to ********************
FROM THE ZURICH OPEN – The Italians have never had much time for the idea that if you haven’t made it by the time you’re 20, you won’t make it. In all their sports, they believe in the power of the mature player, and now the country with a 72-year-old head of government has a tennis player who, at 26, is threatening to go where no Italian woman has gone before.
Her name is Flavia Pennetta, and she’s into the semi-finals of the last-ever Zurich Open tournament in Switzerland. Having beaten the world No 1 Jelena Jankovic on Thursday, she followed it up with a 7-5 6-2 win over Katarina Srebotnik, and with a semi-final against her friend Anabel Medina Garrigues Saturday, who advanced when Victoria Azarenka retired with a right shoulder injury.
A run to the final of the last big European indoor event of the year is distinctly possible. There she might run into Venus Williams who bested Francesca Schiavone 6-3, 6-3, a player she has twice beaten this year.
With her ranking of 17 this week likely to rise by several places, she will be knocking on the door of the top 10 by the end of this year. But she has a mental obstacle to overcome – no Italian woman has ever been in the top 10! Silvia Farina-Elia got to 11, Francesca Schiavone too, in fact she came within a couple of wins of the top 10. Rafaela Reggi, Italy’s best player of the late 1980s, got stuck at 13. It has been a golden decade for the Italian women players, but in the land of great tenors, Italy has yet to have a female top tenner.
It’s a block Pennetta is aware of. “The Italian people and press always talk about that,” she says. “I would like to be the first, but it’s going to be very difficult. To be top 10 you have to be very consistent in one year, not just one month, but I’m going to have the chance if I play well in Australia – if I play well there, I should make it. I’ve never played very well there, but where there’s sun, it’s always a good tournament.”
No-one will be too surprised that a player in her ninth year as a professional should be hitting her best form now. This is a country that thinks soccer players hit their peak around 29 or 30, and whose No 1 male player at the turn of the century was Gianluca Pozzi, who reached his career-high ranking of 40 at 35 years and seven months.
But it has taken a crisis in Pennetta’s career to bring the best out in her. In the middle of 2006, at a time when her ranking had established itself around the 30 mark, she needed surgery on her left wrist. While not major operation, it knocked her confidence badly, and at one stage in 2007 her ranking was down at 92.
“It was a not a good year,” she says, “and after Roland Garros I thought about stopping because I was feeling so bad on court and wasn’t enjoying it at all. But I decided to work again. I worked a lot at the end of last year with my coach and physical coach, we put in seven weeks of very hard work, and I think when you make the hard work, the good results come – you don’t know when, but they have to come at some moment, and you have to be ready for that important moment. The tough thing for us is when you start to lose matches, you go on court and don’t fight, but if you still fight and just believe it, you can come back.
“I also worked with a sports psychologist. We talked about a lot of things, not just tennis but also life. That has helped too.”
One of the advantages of being 26 as opposed to 16 is that you can have a greater perspective on life, and Pennetta has needed that, because the results didn’t come straight away. “After doing the hard work, I had to play, play, play. And in the last month everything has changed. You just have to be ready because sometimes things just change.”
They have certainly changed this year. She now has one of the best serves on the women’s circuit, to the point where she no longer fears being 0-30 down, and she has won two titles, taking her tour count to six and to within striking distance of the top 10.
Mathematically, she could still make it this year, but it would require her to qualify as an alternate for next month’s Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha, and then to get to play sufficiently early to pick up a significant number of points.
The best run of her career has happened while carrying a foot injury. She has a problem with the plantar fascia, which she first felt in Miami. “I didn’t have time to stop because this kind of injury means you need to take a month off,” she says. “After this season I’m going to see some doctors, and do what I need to do.” Maybe given her results she should leave the doctors well alone and play through it.
With her smiling girlish face, she is popular with crowds, particularly so in Switzerland where she is as close to a home player as the host nation of the Zurich Open can get. She lists her residence as Verbier, an Alpine resort in the southern Alps, where she has an apartment. It’s a remnant from her three-year liaison with Carlos Moya which ended last year. “He was living in Geneva, so we thought we’d take a place in the mountains, just to enjoy it a bit more. Verbier is a very nice place, we went there once and it was very relaxing. I always go after Roland Garros and Wimbledon because no-one is there in that period.”
Though still raw from the way her relationship ended – she paid Moya what was supposed to be a welcome surprise visit when he was playing the tournament in Båstad in July 2007, only to find him with another woman – she has kept on the apartment and hopes it will one day be an ideal springboard for learning to ski. But for now she is concentrating on her tennis – to increasingly impressive effect.