Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Glimpsing Flavia
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Glimpsing Flavia 02/16/2010 - 4:00 PM

Fp It was a weekend of small surges and modest triumphs. Lucie Safarova flashed across the radar screen again in Paris, her Selesian bashball game and preposterously youthful features unchanged since we last saw her. Sam Querrey returned to form in San Jose, where, by extending Andy Roddick to a third-set tiebreaker in the semifinals, he showed that he might just be ready to challenge the guys at the top in 2010. Robin Soderling silenced any murmurs of a post-breakthrough slump by winning in Rotterdam. Fernando Verdasco produced a rare victory over a Top 10 player—Roddick—in the San Jose final. And most significantly, Israel’s Shahar Peer won two matches in Dubai, where she had been denied entry a year ago. I wrote about that development, and who might have the most to gain the most from it, over at earlier today.

For me, though, the small triumph of the weekend was the chance to see another woman briefly flash across the radar screen before vanishing again, the way she always does. That was Italy’s Flavia Pennetta, who made a strong run in Paris before finally getting out-bashed by Safarova 6-4 in the third in the semifinals. This is the way it works with Pennetta. She shows up on the fringes of my tennis-viewing life—saving multiple match points in a dramatic win over Vera Zvonareva at the U.S. Open before losing in the next round, upsetting Maria Sharapova in Los Angeles, belting out a victory song with her teammates after their Fed Cup title victory, and giving the chair umpire the finger in another Fed Cup match (I think it’s the same ump who did the Serena-tirade semi at the Open, ironically enough). Maybe it’s because my sightings of Pennetta are so limited that makes them such a pleasure.

Or maybe it's something more, something slightly indefinable about her and the way she carries herself. Like all Italian players, from Adriano Pannatta and Antonio Zugarelli in the 1970s to Francesca Schiavone and Potito Starace today, the pleasure begins with the musical quality of her name. But what’s striking about Pennetta is that, compared to most of her peers, she makes you feel like you’re watching a woman rather than a girl play tennis. This is partly a function of her age—she’ll be 28 on Thursday—but it’s a quality she’s had for a while now. It’s also a function of her nationality; rather than being limited to a fist-pump and a pony-tail flip, Pennetta expresses a wide range of emotions on court without ever getting depressingly negative. It may even be partly a function of her dress; I always liked the clean, elegant white Tacchini number that she’s sported over the years. 

But what Flavia offers as much as anything else is a change of pace from the WTA norm, circa 2010. She has black hair rather than blonde. She isn’t rail thin, 6-feet tall, or a physical specimen. Like the rest of the women, she’s a baseliner with a two-handed backhand, but she’s not a flat-hitting basher, either. There’s a satisfying straightforwardness and simplicity to her game, but it never appears one-dimensional. If Pennetta lacks killer power from behind the baseline, she can nevertheless hit every shot with authority. It may be meat and potatoes tennis, but it has flavor and low-key flair. Watch Pennetta set up to serve; instead of Sharapova-esque calculation, she does it with the fluid little strutting ball bounce of the born jock. She’s a link to the women’s game before the more programmatic Eastern bloc brigade was loosed on the sport.

That’s also why Pennetta, despite playing virtually every week and working her way up from No. 292 in 2001 to No. 11 at the end of 2009, will remain on the tour’s fringe. Against Safarova in Paris, she hung with the younger player by defending well and taking her opportunities to attack when they came. But in the middle of the third set, the Czech took control with the depth and flat force of her strokes, particularly her service returns. Pennetta couldn’t defend against that forever. Having come up in the late-90s, before the Russian revolution and the consequent spike in power and athleticism, she doesn’t hit with the same abandon as the women ahead of her in the rankings. Pennetta may not melt down too often, but there’s a ceiling to her game.

After 13 years as a pro, she knows it. Pennetta can show deep anger and histrionic frustration on the court—witness the aforementioned middle finger—as well as despair, which is often accompanied by a weird gesture where she holds her racquet strings a centimeter from her face. It’s hard to tell whether she wants to hide behind them or smack them straight into her forehead, à la Mikhail Youzhny. Either way, you feel her pain. But she doesn't let it drag her all the way down, like, say, Zvonareva does at her worst. There's a sense of stability to Pennetta that may paradoxically allow her to show as much emotion as she does. And when the pain and the match are over, there’s her smile, full, toothy, genuine.

Last week, I talked about how tennis is often reduced to a single either/or—Roger or Rafa, Chrissie or Martina. The tours are often reduced in a similar way—10 years ago, it was “all the men can do is serve”; today it’s “all the women can do is bash and shriek.” But again, the diverse, individualistic, world-spanning nature of the pro game always comes back to prove otherwise, to prove that with each match you might just see something different, something you like. And then it might be gone again, off the radar screen, the way Pennetta disappeared before I could see her play a full set on Saturday. Before she left, I had time to notice, with some dismay, that she had ditched the classic Tacchini for a more standard yellow-and-black Adidas get-up. I also had time to notice that, like everything else with Flavia—her name, her age, her rage, her wins, her losses, her smile, her career-long struggles to improve—she wore it well.


Posted by TennisFan 02/16/2010 at 04:28 PM

So well written.
"She’s a link to the women’s game before the more programmatic Eastern bloc brigade was loosed on the sport."
This line made me somehow think of animals moving out of the sea onto land and Flavia as the amphibian link between them!
Sometimes more than the tennis insights, which are always present, I pause to just admire your pleasing writing style!

Posted by Marv 02/16/2010 at 04:45 PM

Just imagine if Serena had given the finger instead of Pennetta. Do you think the incidient would have found itself on barely mentioned on peripheral tennis blogs back in 2009? Or would it have instead drawn a massive backlash of anti-Williams sentiment, and a tirade by certain over-zealous officials (yes, Mary Carillo) for Serena's dismissal. We all know that the latter scenario would be more plausible.

Posted by Legoboy 02/16/2010 at 05:06 PM

Steve...thanks for keeping your writing interesting, and thought provoking!

You're the only blogger on here I dare to go out of my way to read....and to date, not yet disappointed! (Nor do I read it making snarky comments under my breath =P)


Posted by Andrew Broad 02/16/2010 at 05:14 PM

While I, as a Lucie Šafářová fan, am flattered by the comparison with Monica Seles, I feel compelled to point out that the word "Selesian", as applied to a tennis-player, means, by definition, two-handed on both backhand and forehand.

Posted by Master Ace 02/16/2010 at 05:16 PM

"For me, though, the small triumph of the weekend was the chance to see another woman briefly flash across the radar screen before vanishing again, the way she always does"

When Slams come, Flavia does not get the media coverage but when she finally reach the round where she gets coverage, she is being ousted by the stronger player(Serena at USO in 2009)

Posted by Puissance 02/16/2010 at 05:20 PM

"While I, as a Lucie Šafářová fan, am flattered by the comparison with Monica Seles"

Where in that article are LS's *fans* compared to Monica Seles?

Oh, they're not. Are *all* fans insane, I wonder?

Posted by PB 02/16/2010 at 05:23 PM

nice post. i've always like Penetta and hope she goes far this year!

Posted by meretricula 02/16/2010 at 06:31 PM

*Before she left, I had time to notice, with some dismay, that she had ditched the classic Tacchini for a more standard yellow-and-black Adidas get-up.*

I was sad that she won't be wearing that beautiful white Tacchini dress anymore too, but Flavia wasn't the one doing the dumping! Tacchini dropped her when they picked up Novak; she was without a sponsor for a few tournaments before adidas grabbed her.

Posted by skip1515 02/16/2010 at 06:48 PM

Agreed. And I'd add Schiavone. Love watching them play.

Posted by john10 02/16/2010 at 07:07 PM

the way she is...gotta be an Italian thing

Posted by Gillian 02/16/2010 at 07:08 PM

Really enjoyed this article- very well written. I enjoy watching Flav, but yep, that damn ceiling keeps pushing her back. Hope she can get back into the top 10 this year though

Posted by john10 02/16/2010 at 07:09 PM

you can tell she's a strong person, probably had older brothers

Posted by Angel of the Surf (Congrats Feli on Winning Jo'burg) 02/16/2010 at 07:45 PM

No she doesn't have older brothers just an older sister.

Steve I love this article, Flavia Flav my favourite female player. So glad she decided to play Paris and Dubai and not the SA swing. Love her bh. She did sustain a wrist injury in 2006 around the USO which derail her and found it difficult to get back in 2007. Since 2008 she has been progressing nicely.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 02/16/2010 at 08:06 PM

Thanks Steve

Count me in as a Falvia fan.She has been playing the "best tennis of her career" I feel since last year.She is now probably a Vetran on the tour.Played well in Fed Cup for Italy over the years as well.

Posted by BigBangerSD 02/16/2010 at 08:56 PM

1. Super classy lady (even with "the finger" incident).
2. Her interviews at the Slams are good reading (in one interview she admitted, as a six year-old, taking her mother's keys, starting the family car and driving it into a bush, in another she stated her coach forbids her from riding a motorcyle, so she just borrows Schiavone's). She also has a funny commerical for Italian ESPN and is sponsored by an olive oil company. None of this has a forced feel, either.
3. Big difference her "finger episode" and the Serena meltdown: She immediately took responsibility for her actions (plus, she didn't physically threaten anyone).

Posted by pm 02/16/2010 at 09:29 PM


As always a very nice article. I have always found Pennetta very pleasant to watch but could not articulate the reasons why. But that's why I read your writing!

I hope that she has a couple of tournaments this year where things all fall into place and she gets great results.

Posted by Master Ace 02/16/2010 at 10:31 PM

Angel of the Surf,
Originally Flavia was scheduled to be off from Fed Cup until Acapulco but she took wildcards in Paris(SF loss to Lucie) and Dubai(R16 match against Agnieszka)

Posted by Bobby 02/16/2010 at 10:52 PM

Love Flavia Pennetta and love this piece on her. A few other small comments: I love the way you describe Lucie Safarova as "preposterously youthful". In Paris I couldn't get over how young she looked. Yes, I was envious! As for Flavia I too liked her better in the Tacchini -- it was more her. Not that she doesn't look great in Adidas, because really... how could Flavia Pennetta *not* look great in anything?

Posted by meks 02/17/2010 at 12:56 AM

I see that the world will always be full of fools; Pennetta is classy and can do no wrong, but yet she can get away with given someone the middle finger. Who cares she own up to it?; how can u own up to something that is barely mention?. Frankly, I don't care about she giving the the chair ump a finger because I know that no one is perfect, and your anger can the best of you in the heat of the moment,although; the fact that some people thinks its cute and feisty when Pennetta say or give obscene remark or gesture, but when Serena does it she's Satan,she's rude,she's arrogant, and she should be ban. This kinda things sadness me because I have two young girls and it doesn't take a rocket science to see why I am worried for my kids because in this world people of color especially black people will never be acceptable and treated the way the privileged whites are. This article woke me up, and it showed me to stop being so gullible and to not let my guard down, and to continue to raise my girls with the fact we blacks have to have tough skin, and to stay on top our game because it's so hard to get a second chance when we make a mistake.

Posted by joackim 02/17/2010 at 06:00 AM

Flavia is BY FAR the sexiest woman on tour.Good luck to her for the rest of the year.

As for Safarova she'd wish to have even half of Seles talent.There is no comparison between the two.Seles is a legend!Safarova is nothing.Oh sorry i forgot.She's Berdych gf.

Posted by Mr. T. 02/17/2010 at 06:36 AM

Steve - Nice post. Flavia is a tennis player with a wholesome and human personality - not so easy to find these days. She is one of the few players that can make Tennis Channel's "bag check" worth watching. And as for her tennis, you have nailed it. A late bloomer but one who plays the game giving it everything that she has got. And she continues to improve each year. I would hope that she would read your blog - very complimentary and positive. It might make her stick around and we all will be better for that. Recognizing some of the less well known players is one of your blog's attributes.

Posted by jb (go smiley fed!) 02/17/2010 at 09:59 AM

Great post - i lurve flavia - so nice to see her get some print time. And as a big FOOP - its also nice to read something NOT centered on the top couple players. :)

Posted by a tennis fan 02/17/2010 at 04:50 PM

Me thinks you are a little smitten with Ms. Pennata?

Posted by viktorkwan 02/17/2010 at 06:39 PM

Saw her in Sydney earlier this year...she's a pleasure to watch

Posted by mary C. 02/17/2010 at 06:53 PM

I came to the conclusion that I like Panneta's playing because she is so well balanced. Watch her the next time she plays. She never seems out of balance. It's her balance that gives her the opportunity to hit so well. Anyone agree with me?

Posted by bob, cape cod, usa 02/17/2010 at 08:43 PM

There is a sweet, genuine quality about Pennetta. And while other players seem to try hard to hide their emotions, it's pleasant to see her unmistakable Italian style shine on the court.

Posted by K. G. Mac 02/18/2010 at 12:05 AM


Like all the haters, you can easily dismiss and forgive Pennetta giving a finger gesture. Instead of saying what a rude woman she was for doing the gesture; you praised her beauty, elegance..ria, ria, ria, bullshit! Your just another prejudice white writer (man) who likes or just notices a white woman. But I won't lose a sleep on you and your Pennetta because Pennetta isn't as important as Serena, anyway. When you're no. 1 tennis player in the world and black: you better be aware of these bad people like you Steve, Mary Carillo, Mary fernandez, and the rest of the US Open white're all bad people. You deserve judgement!

Posted by Andrew Miller 02/18/2010 at 12:55 AM

Mr. Tignor: Awesome. I love Flavia Pannetta's game. She seems kind of like the lefty P. Snyder in that she has so much game. I would like for nothing less than Flavia to win a slam.

(Myskina and Majoli did it and Flavia's better. Why not?)

Posted by Dave 02/18/2010 at 02:59 AM

Come on, in an article that starts with an ode to small triumphs I would have assumed Ferrero's winning in Brazil would lead off that category. I can't put my finger on exactly why, but there's something I've always liked about Ferrero - maybe it's the fact that no matter how well he's playing, he always give the impression that every match win could be his last - Adds an element of destiny. And incidentally, Flavia Penetta is really beautiful.

Posted by Dave 02/18/2010 at 03:01 AM

Oh and as an addendum to that last post, Penetta is beautiful in an attainable flawed way - not an overly manicured beauty like an Ivanovic, for example.

Posted by Alex 02/18/2010 at 06:13 AM

Flavia is the sexiest woman in WTA-tour! she's the best!!!!
I want only wins for her!
good luck , sexy Flavi!

Posted by Larry 02/18/2010 at 06:27 AM

Steve, thank you so much for this great article about Flavia! I'm Italian and as a tennis fan I really appreciated every single word in your post. It's great to hear so many nice comments about her and realize that she has so many fans and admirers around the world. Unfortunately Flavia has probably got more followers around the world than in her own country. Although Italian media and press have been trying to push Flavia's image and popularity with national TV appearances, magazine covers, fashion shows, advertisements etc., we still have a very foreign-oriented tennis culture among Italian fans. If you read through some of the main Italian tennis websites and blogs, you'll realize how most of the Italian fans are exclusively Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal's hardcore fans, they don't even care about following and supporting Flavia. Italian tennis fans are composed of: 60% Federer's supporters, 39.5% Nadal's supporters, 0.5% Pennetta and Schiavone's supporters. How sad.
That's probably one of the main reasons why Flavia was dropped by her Italian sponsor Sergio Tacchini last December despite her magical 2009 Summer stretch. Mr.Tacchini decided to invest his money on Novak Djokovic...

Posted by Michel, Beirut 02/18/2010 at 08:07 AM

I absolutely love reading your articles (and Steve Bodo's) to the greatest extent! Great feature, and congratulations for choosing such lovely subject (obviously, you were inspired :D) and for writing such a nice piece on Flavia Penetta. Mediterranean women share this aura if maturity and general women-ness that is so pleasing to the eye on a daily basis ... i have to agree that "what’s striking about Pennetta is that, compared to most of her peers, she makes you feel like you’re watching a woman rather than a girl play tennis"
Best wishes to a truly great season of Flavia Penetta wins and Steve Tignor articles!

Posted by Alex 02/18/2010 at 11:53 AM

Larry, it's really sad that Italians don't support Flavia a lot. she deserves it. She's the best Italian tennis player ever. I love her so much, she's my fave tennis player!!!she's the best!
but after FedCUp's victory maybe something change in Italy...

Posted by TennisRone 1000 02/19/2010 at 03:41 PM

It was good to watch Flavs during the most recent USO. I never really had witnessed her game until then...and it was nice to watch somebody that does play a steady, gritty game amongst many of the "strike and hope"-ers out there. Her guile should certainly help her against most of the women out there except those whose games are just assisted by being athletically superior (Your Top 5).

She is pretty cute as well........that inner-fire we get to watch can be appealing.....

I think her ranking is a just reward....a clear display of her commitment and consistency. That's probably about the best complement a player whom may not be a GS champion can enjoy and that us tennis fans should appreciate and applaud....

Cheers all!

Posted by Air Jordans 04/01/2010 at 05:42 AM

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Posted by Tony 04/12/2010 at 05:19 PM

Great article!! I agree with every word of it!

I've been a big fan of hers for 5 or 6 yrs now, although i've been watching tennis for about 35 yrs i'd never had a "favourite player" before I first saw Flavia play.

Defensively she can be as good as anyone on her day but, unlike most of the other defensive baseline players, she doesn't just keep hitting it back to her opponent until one of them makes a mistake! She will always look for the opportunity to hit a clean winner.

I think that she has become more aggressive recently, seems to be attacking the opponents serve (as against Errani the other day in Marbella) and this is producing positive results for her.

I hope she has a successful year and in the coming years.

Posted by tn requin 10/04/2010 at 09:35 PM

Great post - i lurve flavia - so nice to see her get some print time. And as a big FOOP - its also nice to read something NOT centered on the top couple players. :)nike tn
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Posted by cheap ugg boots 10/06/2010 at 10:02 PM

I would like to thank you for this post. I recently come across your blog and was reading along.

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