Final defeat for the battler who lived an NYC fairy tale

Final defeat for the battler who lived an NYC fairy tale
Maria Sharapova (left) embraces Flavia Pennetta after defeating her 7-5, 6-1 last night in the WTA Finals at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. It was the last career match for the Italian, who won the US Open singles title last month.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

John Galsworthy the novelist once wrote that "the beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy". And so it was last night. After 1,317 aces, 1,441 double faults and 31,084 points won over 717 WTA Tour, Fed Cup and Grand Slam matches, Flavia Pennetta's final tennis act was a backhand dumped into the net. As an ending it seemed unmemorable, as a journey it has been remarkable.

The Italian needed at least a set off Maria Sharapova to reach the semi-finals but the Russian showed her respect by displaying no mercy. Pennetta in fact led 3-1 in the first set with two break points for a 4-1 lead. But she could not close and Sharapova would not bend.

For us it seemed imperfect but athletes are not normal folk. Defeat aches and yet to fall to the great athlete carries its own honour. Said Pennetta of Sharapova: "She's one of the best ever... It was perfect to lose to her."

Pennetta is no legend, no wisecracking tweeter, no Vogue-starring celebrity. She has never stood out and yet there was a poignance last night as she walked out. Because she had reminded us this year of what we always need to know in sport. That everyone has a chance.

Penetta, 33, made her Grand Slam debut in 2003 when Garbine Muguruza was nine. She has been No.6 in singles and No.1 in doubles, she won the Fed Cup and 11 singles titles, she was a familiar name in the draw and had a face that made people think "I know her". Mostly she has walked on the outskirts of greatness.

Not everyone's fairy tale comes true, which is precisely what makes the fairy tale special. There are too many players and not enough Grand Slam titles. Pennetta had apparently run out of time and then, this year at the US Open, she won her first Grand Slam title at her last Grand Slam event. She was an old player but she had become a new love story.

Martina Navratilova cried when she won and Marion Bartoli was moved. Not just because Pennetta is a likeable person but because - said Bartoli - "it's such a great example of perseverance, of trying your hardest every day". There is no prize for everyone who works hard but there is no prize without working hard.

Pennetta has struggled through illness and drops in ranking. Her injured wrist kept her from the game for months and Carlos Moya broke her heart. Life shoved her around and yet she pushed back.

"I'm really proud," she said yesterday, "to be strong all the time. I had so many injuries, so many stops in my career. I had to start few times from nothing. And again and again.

"Of course it's much better if you have everything quickly and when you are younger. But in the other point, I think it's also a good way to see (that it) doesn't matter how many times you fell down, you can always be back."

Pennetta's final tennis sounds last night were a Russian shriek and a Singapore cheer. Her last act was to applaud Sharapova and then slide her racket into her bag. She had come to tennis without fuss and left without fanfare. "I don't like drama," she said later, for she did not want to cry. In her utter normality lay her professional beauty.

Later, hair washed and eyes dry, she faced questions, searched her memory and laughed easily.

Had she watched her triumphant US Open final on tape?

"No, just the last point."

How many times?

"So many," she laughed.

Today the tennis continues, for it never stops. Today Pennetta is gone and another dreamer comes. The last-ranked player on the WTA Tour is Alina Zolotareva who is No. 1,264. This year she earned S$1,161 and perhaps she should spend a part of it to buy a poster of the Italian to stick to her wall.

After all, sport can never revolve only around Serena Williams and the small tribe of the towering, terrific, self-assured champion. Sport is also about women like Pennetta, who stand for a wider clan of athletes. A talented, tenacious athlete who reminded her peers never to stop believing in the mad hopefulness of their voyage.

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