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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Glimpsing Flavia

Fp It was a weekend of small surges and modest triumphs. Lucie Safarova flashed across the radar screen again in Paris, her Selesian bashball game and preposterously youthful features unchanged since we last saw her. Sam Querrey returned to form in San Jose, where, by extending Andy Roddick to a third-set tiebreaker in the semifinals, he showed that he might just be ready to challenge the guys at the top in 2010. Robin Soderling silenced any murmurs of a post-breakthrough slump by winning in Rotterdam. Fernando Verdasco produced a rare victory over a Top 10 player—Roddick—in the San Jose final. And most significantly, Israel’s Shahar Peer won two matches in Dubai, where she had been denied entry a year ago. I wrote about that development, and who might have the most to gain the most from it, over at earlier today.
For me, though, the small triumph of the weekend was the chance to see another woman briefly flash across the radar screen before vanishing again, the way she always does. That was Italy’s Flavia Pennetta, who made a strong run in Paris before finally getting out-bashed by Safarova 6-4 in the third in the semifinals. This is the way it works with Pennetta. She shows up on the fringes of my tennis-viewing life—saving multiple match points in a dramatic win over Vera Zvonareva at the U.S. Open before losing in the next round, upsetting Maria Sharapova in Los Angeles, belting out a victory song with her teammates after their Fed Cup title victory, and giving the chair umpire the finger in another Fed Cup match (I think it’s the same ump who did the Serena-tirade semi at the Open, ironically enough). Maybe it’s because my sightings of Pennetta are so limited that makes them such a pleasure.
Or maybe it's something more, something slightly indefinable about her and the way she carries herself. Like all Italian players, from Adriano Pannatta and Antonio Zugarelli in the 1970s to Francesca Schiavone and Potito Starace today, the pleasure begins with the musical quality of her name. But what’s striking about Pennetta is that, compared to most of her peers, she makes you feel like you’re watching a woman rather than a girl play tennis. This is partly a function of her age—she’ll be 28 on Thursday—but it’s a quality she’s had for a while now. It’s also a function of her nationality; rather than being limited to a fist-pump and a pony-tail flip, Pennetta expresses a wide range of emotions on court without ever getting depressingly negative. It may even be partly a function of her dress; I always liked the clean, elegant white Tacchini number that she’s sported over the years. 
But what Flavia offers as much as anything else is a change of pace from the WTA norm, circa 2010. She has black hair rather than blonde. She isn’t rail thin, 6-feet tall, or a physical specimen. Like the rest of the women, she’s a baseliner with a two-handed backhand, but she’s not a flat-hitting basher, either. There’s a satisfying straightforwardness and simplicity to her game, but it never appears one-dimensional. If Pennetta lacks killer power from behind the baseline, she can nevertheless hit every shot with authority. It may be meat and potatoes tennis, but it has flavor and low-key flair. Watch Pennetta set up to serve; instead of Sharapova-esque calculation, she does it with the fluid little strutting ball bounce of the born jock. She’s a link to the women’s game before the more programmatic Eastern bloc brigade was loosed on the sport.
That’s also why Pennetta, despite playing virtually every week and working her way up from No. 292 in 2001 to No. 11 at the end of 2009, will remain on the tour’s fringe. Against Safarova in Paris, she hung with the younger player by defending well and taking her opportunities to attack when they came. But in the middle of the third set, the Czech took control with the depth and flat force of her strokes, particularly her service returns. Pennetta couldn’t defend against that forever. Having come up in the late-90s, before the Russian revolution and the consequent spike in power and athleticism, she doesn’t hit with the same abandon as the women ahead of her in the rankings. Pennetta may not melt down too often, but there’s a ceiling to her game.
After 13 years as a pro, she knows it. Pennetta can show deep anger and histrionic frustration on the court—witness the aforementioned middle finger—as well as despair, which is often accompanied by a weird gesture where she holds her racquet strings a centimeter from her face. It’s hard to tell whether she wants to hide behind them or smack them straight into her forehead, à la Mikhail Youzhny. Either way, you feel her pain. But she doesn't let it drag her all the way down, like, say, Zvonareva does at her worst. There's a sense of stability to Pennetta that may paradoxically allow her to show as much emotion as she does. And when the pain and the match are over, there’s her smile, full, toothy, genuine.
Last week, I talked about how tennis is often reduced to a single either/or—Roger or Rafa, Chrissie or Martina. The tours are often reduced in a similar way—10 years ago, it was “all the men can do is serve”; today it’s “all the women can do is bash and shriek.” But again, the diverse, individualistic, world-spanning nature of the pro game always comes back to prove otherwise, to prove that with each match you might just see something different, something you like. And then it might be gone again, off the radar screen, the way Pennetta disappeared before I could see her play a full set on Saturday. Before she left, I had time to notice, with some dismay, that she had ditched the classic Tacchini for a more standard yellow-and-black Adidas get-up. I also had time to notice that, like everything else with Flavia—her name, her age, her rage, her wins, her losses, her smile, her career-long struggles to improve—she wore it well.

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