When 15-year-old CiCi Bellis won her first-ever main draw singles match at the 2014 US Open, the American could hardly contain her excitement.
When 32-year-old Flavia Pennetta reached her fifth US Open quarterfinal in the last seven years, the Italian was all business, having moved past the point of deep introspection or questioning why the Open has been the source of her best results.
“Everyone make the same question, eh? Every day,” the veteran quipped with a shrug and a smirk. “I mean, I don't know. I'm just like to play here and maybe that's why I play good here.”
Pennetta is not merely in the midst of a resurgence; she has truly saved her best tennis for this unexpected chapter of her career. The first Italian woman to crack the world’s Top 10, she considered retirement after a wrist injury eroded her ranking to within one spot of having to play the qualifying tournament at last year’s US Open. Pennetta got into the main draw straightaway thanks to a pre-tournament withdrawal and proceeded to upset No. 4 seed and countrywoman Sara Errani en route to her first-ever Grand Slam semifinal.
“I think it's really good week for me. I go home with good feeling, with good sensation,” she said after losing to eventual finalist Victoria Azarenka. “I didn't expect to be in semifinal now, so everything is coming. It's so nice and so perfect.”
The Italian rolled into the 2014 season buoyed by her fortnight in Flushing, reaching her first Australian Open quarterfinal and winning the biggest title of her career, in Indian Wells. This summer was quieter for Pennetta, who only won three matches during the Emirates Airlines US Open Series. But once the Open began, she perked up, picking up right where she left off, dropping only one set in four matches thus far.
“There is something,” Pennetta eventually admitted when asked, once again, what it is about the US Open that brings out her best. “I like the city all the time. When I get to New York, I feel much better. In New Haven I wasn't playing really well, and I had a bad moment on the court and everything. Just to come here I was already more happy.”
For all of her experience, the Italian was struck by nerves ahead of her fourth-round encounter with fellow veteran and No. 29 seed Casey Dellacqua. Pennetta battled through an up-and-down opening set before running away with the second to set up a second US Open quarterfinal encounter with top seed Serena Williams. She hasn't taken a set, let alone a match, from Williams since 2008, but she isn't fretting, at least outwardly. Pennetta is instead stressing the importance of playing to win, especially against the best in the game.
“You cannot invent something [new]," said Pennetta. "I mean, you just have to play your tennis and do your best. Of course, she's better than me, but if I still believe I can beat her, maybe if she doesn't have a good day, I can do that. If I get in the court and just play and try to don't take 6-Love, 6-0, I gonna take 6-Love, 6-0.”
There is no sense of delusion emitting from Flavia Pennetta. At a point in her life where she is still unbothered by the grind required of a professional tennis player, she is content to continue playing the game she loves, and she does not envy the youthful exuberance of a 15-year-old upstart.
“When you are young, you want it too badly to have something," she said. "So much pressure. When you are a little bit old, you see things in different way. I mean, tennis is important, but life is important. Family is important. So you're starting to give the good balance, to have the good balance for everything.”