The date 17 August 2009 will go down in the annals of Italian tennis as a historic day – and Italy’s sport media went to town on it. That was the day when Italy first celebrated a woman in the world’s top 10, Flavia Pennetta finally acceding to 10th in the Sony Ericsson rankings.
There had been other big names in Italian women’s tennis, but none had ever reached the top 10. Francesca Schiavone and Silvia Farina Elia fell tantalisingly close, both peaking at 11th; Rafaella Reggi got to 13th in April 1988; and Lea Pericoli’s best years came before computer rankings were introduced in the mid-1970s.
Great times are frequently not appreciated when they in the present – it generally takes the historical perspective to realise just how good they were – but Italian women’s tennis is currently in a golden era. Not perhaps the way Russian tennis is, or the two-woman dominance Spain enjoyed in the 1990s and Belgium has enjoyed for much of this decade.
But Italy has seven women in the top 100, and while there isn’t a Grand Slam singles champion among them, they include enough team players for the southern European nation to be in its third Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Final in four years.
Pennetta holds key to success
While the Italian teams of 2006 and 2007 were spearheaded by the wily Francesca Schiavone, who seems to keep her best tennis for Fed Cup, this year’s team leader will be Flavia Pennetta, assuming she is fit – she had to withdraw from the tournament in Moscow on 16 October with a knee injury, which is keeping the Italian team doctors very busy.
The Italian media made the most of Pennetta getting to the top 10 in August, though a few experienced tennis watchers felt the adulation was a little excessive.
“It was presented as the biggest thing for our tennis,” says the veteran Italian tennis journalist and commentator Rino Tommasi, “which is very stupid. We have been a bit lucky in Fed Cup, and our men players are so terrible at the moment that it makes the women’s achievements seem bigger than they are. I think it makes people think we can beat the USA, but if Serena plays, it could be decided for the Americans before the doubles.”
The truth about Italian women’s tennis probably lies somewhere between these slightly polemic views. The ‘bit lucky’ comment is fair, given that Italy won the 2006 Final against Belgium with Kim Clijsters ill and Justine Henin having to withdraw from the final set of the fifth rubber with a leg injury, thereby gifting the Italians their first Fed Cup by BNP Paribas title on a retirement.
But there is a feistiness about the Italian players that has seen them beat more illustrious opponents, such as Schiavone’s win from match point down against Amelie Mauresmo in the French player’s stellar year of 2006, and Pennetta’s win over Shuai Peng in China.
Team sports v Individual sports
Another element is that team sports have always been a better way to the Italian sports fan’s heart than individual sports. Italy’s great male player of the 1970s, Adriano Panatta, always said winning the Davis Cup in 1976 and reaching three other Finals cut more ice with the Italian public than his tour achievements, a sentiment echoed by various successors as Italian No 1.
Tommasi himself says Davis Cup and Fed Cup are still the best way for Italy’s tennis players to get exposure at home, which perhaps explains why they are more motivated in team competitions.
But this year’s Italian Fed Cup team has an advantage Panatta’s team never enjoyed – it will host a Final at home. Not since 1966, the fourth year of the competition, has a Fed Cup Final been played in Italy, and only once was a Davis Cup Final played on Italian soil (in Milan in 1998 when Sweden beat Italy). So, will this year’s Final be the pinnacle of the Schiavone/Pennetta generation in Italian tennis?
It might be the last chance for them to lift the trophy for the second time. Not only are Clijsters and Henin back playing, but Serbia is the new nation on the block with two top-level players, and Samantha Stosur is heading an Australian comeback. The competition is mounting – that’s why this Final is so big for Italy.