By John Huston
A few days ago, it looked like Flavia Pennetta was out of the BNP Paribas Open. Down 0-3 and a break point in the final set against SoCal favorite Sloane Stephens, Pennetta was in free fall, having flopped a chance to serve out the match in the second set.
But the winds of change were in play—specifically an on-court dust storm that threw an element of chaos into each rally between the Italian veteran and the up-and-coming American. Pennetta found some consistency, Stephens sent balls sailing, and in a few minutes, the whole flavor of the tournament began to change.
A day later, the fiery, fist-pumping Italian upped her game and turned the tables to score a 7-6 (5), 6-3 win over longtime peer Li Na—both 32, Li and Pennetta were born just one day apart—in the semis. And today in her first big final, she dismissed a sligthly-hobbled, error-prone Aga Radwanska 6-2, 6-1. Make no mistake: today is the biggest day of her career.
For years, Pennetta has been a strong force on tour, just below the game’s elite, but frequently providing memorable moments. Witnesses won’t forget when she made the tempestuous Vera Zvonareva literally unravel, pulling off her leg bandages in anger, after fighting off match points at the 2009 US Open? Or her demonstrative battle against officials and a peeved Amelie Mauresmo in the 2009 Fed Cup. As Italian women’s tennis has raised its profile in the last handful of years, with Francesca Schiavone winning the 2010 French Open and reaching the final in 2011, only to be followed by a top-10-bound Sara Errani the next year, it’s easy to forget that it was Pennetta who blazed the trail, by becoming the first Italian woman to reach the top 10, in 2009.
Pennetta has been known at times for her off court personality, whether it be through her past relationship with Carlos Moya, or her colorful appreciation for life’s pleasures, as outlined in interviews and her autobiography. But her Indian Wells win proves that solid, discriminatingly aggressive tennis with fine shotmaking form can still reap benefits at a time when the biggest titles usually belong to the biggest hitters in the women’s game.
A year ago, Pennetta was battling injury, and the future of her career was in doubt. But today, as the winner of the 2013 BNP Paribas Open, she has a million dollar paycheck—and a pair of extremely proud parents. “I call my dad, and it was like he couldn’t breathe,” she said in the press room, describing her first phone call after the match. “I tell him, ‘Papa,, respirare—breathe!’ Both Pennetta and her father can breathe deeply now—in the game of tennis, the winds of change are fast.