When Flavia Pennetta announced that she would be hanging up her racquets and walking away a winner from her long, successful WTA Tour career, people were stunned. Here is an athlete who over the past 3 years has improved her game to a highly competitive, effective level, and has seemed to reach her prime. Many pundits expected this tremendous US Open performance (regardless of the outcome of the final) to inspire the fiery Italian to even more future success, but with her announcement (and post match press conference clarifications) Pennetta left many wondering why now?
Obviously her decision is not without precedent. Pete Sampras and Marion Bartoli both made immediate exits following slam victories. Bartoli’s echoes more of the sentiments and situation that Pennetta discussed with the press post championship. Penneta discussed the lack of desire to train and win, and “it would not be worthwhile to continue playing.” At 33, she couldn’t have imagined a better way and time to leave the sport–creating a historic and poignant moment to hang the hat of her career on.
By choosing to move on from tennis after such a big victory, Penetta has chosen to avoid so much of the speculation and critique that winners of only one slam experience throughout the rest of their careers. Often deemed “one slam wonders” they become tennis trivia–B roll footage for Tennis Channel specials and pre commercial breakaways. Terms like “one slam wonder” in itself are inherently condescending–their tone implying that what a winner of only one slam is somehow lesser. It implies that their championship, their victory is somehow not worthwhile, eroding so much of the luster and truth in their accomplishment, which is that for that two weeks their level of play allowed them beat everyone they faced and be a slam champion.
Pennetta would most likely face this scrutiny on tour from the media. Whether it is deserved is debatable. Yes, Pennetta has only this one slam championship, and it would be easy to dismiss it as a fluke; however, when one examines the statistics and achievements of Pennetta (and other owners of single slam championships) one can see that there is more to these players stories, and that much of that critique is unwarranted. Pennetta herself has created a highly successful and noteworthy career, even if it was done under the radar of mainstream tennis media. She has won Indian Wells, the biggest tournament outside of the slams, in 2014. During her career she has career wins over, Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo, Martina Hingis, Mary Pierce, Svetlana Kunetzsova, Victoria Azarenka, Samantha Stosur, Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Venus Williams, and Maria Sharapova. All of the aforementioned women are slam champions. Obviously, peak Pennetta is/was as good as any other woman in the world. Even in this US Open Championship match, after a nervy start, Pennetta clearly established herself as the class of the tournament by pulling away from giant slayer Roberta Vinci, and winning the second set with ease.
By walking away now, Pennetta ends her career on her own terms. At 33, her body, self admittedly, is starting to feel the wear and tear of years on tour. She leaves while basking in the positive limelight of her biggest success. She won’t suffer the fate as others like Roddick, Chang, Myskina, and Majoli whose single slam victories were often discussed in a solemn, pitying sort of manner by commentators covering their slam matches. She will finish the season without pressure to repeat; without discussion of whether her form was fluke or talent, without the worry of figuring out what will be her motivation will be for next season. Pennetta can return to Italy a hero and enjoy the media blitz and accolades that will follow.