Flavia Pennetta is making her tennis swansong at the Champions Tennis League, where she described the ups and downs of her career to wtatennis.com contributor Deepti Patwardhan.
WTA Staff

"Just try," urges Flavia Pennetta. "Sometimes you know you are not one hundred percent, you are just four percent, so you have to play with that. You don't have a lot of chance there. So at least you can try. Just stay there and play every point, you never know."

The Italian has left behind the struggles of the pro tour, but the competitor in her still comes brimming to the surface. The hazel eyes glinting in the midday sun that filters into the café of the luxury hotel in Mumbai. She is here for the Champions Tennis League; an opportunity for a lap of honor in this part of the world before she finally bows out. She sports a plain grey tracksuit and a friendly smile, nothing to announce that we have a Grand Slam champion in our midst. Her tanned face though speaking of contentment; contentment at bringing her career to a logical end.

After 49 attempts, Pennetta won a Grand Slam trophy at this year's US Open. At the age of 33, she was the oldest first-time winner of a major in women's tennis history.

"Every player wants to win a Grand Slam, but the truth is few people do," she says.

"It was something that was my dream but I never thought it could be a reality. It came at a moment when I was expecting nothing. This was the key. Because when you expect a lot, it doesn't happen. You put so much pressure on yourself, it doesn't work. But we are human, this is how we think. We hope and we prepare and we want it."

There were times, she admits, when it was difficult to do all those things. At 18, in the year she turned pro, she was diagnosed with typhus, a bacterial disease. In 2006, she had to undergo wrist surgery. Almost the whole of 2007 was spent recovering from not just the wrist injury but a broken heart. In 2012 another wrist injury kept her out of the game for nine months.

"That year [2007] was the worst year," she recalls. "Wrist, love, everything together. I thought everything was over. But then I find something inside me that I never knew I had and started over from nothing." She was angry after her relationship with fellow tennis player Carlos Moya had ended in difficult circumstances.

"But the human being can get used to everything. Even when you are upset, you have to stay on the road," she says with the same degree of poise she displayed on the tennis court.

"I had a love problem, everyone has it. Tennis was really important for me at that time. It was my way to not think about him. So I have to thank him for what he did. Maybe my life would have been completely different. After so many years, I have to say thanks to Carlos for everything. If it wasn't for that, maybe I wouldn't have been here, wouldn't have been a Grand Slam champion. Everything happens for a reason."

Pennetta showed up every day, for training and on the court. She broke into the Top 10 in 2009. She led Italy to Fed Cup victories in 2009 and 2010. By 2011 she had become an accomplished doubles player, topping the rankings and winning the Australian Open with Argentina's Gisela Dulko.

She was regularly making it to the second week of Grand Slams in singles, too, the dogged Italian forever lingering but not quite conquering.

"Was not easy," she says.

"Tennis is a sport that you can play every week. The season is so long, so you cannot pretend to be a 100 percent every time. There are times when you are going down for sure. But I always try to give everything on court, be positive. Sometimes I was also depressed. But you get depressed because you feel alone. When you are winning it is easy, but when you start to lose and you go back in your room and your family is away, you feel alone.

"But I had a good team - that is very important. They are my coaches, trainers, physios, but they are also my friends. It is also strange on the women's tour to have people that you love for a long time, because women change [support staff] a lot. We try to find a solution to the problem in others. Sometimes the problem is just us. It's not the racquet, the ball, the umpire, it's just you."

After making yet another comeback in 2013 and slugging it out in 2014 the doubts began to creep in. She turned 33 this February and could feel the fire dulling. The decision to make 2015 her last in tennis was gathering momentum.

"What led me to the decision was that I didn't want to compete every week, be so angry on the court every week. If you don't do that, you have lost your passion. So why do it?" She had also found stability in her personal life, entering into a steady relationship with fellow Italian player Fabio Fognini.

Even with retirement on the horizon Pennetta refused to put any extra pressure on herself. Having flown under the radar most of her career, she would have been happy to walk into the sunset without the crowning glory of a major.

But the universe was conspiring for her. The US Open was her favorite Grand Slam event; she had made four quarterfinals and a semifinal in New York before. In the madness of the city, even on one-hour long drives from hotel to the stadium, she found a calmness that she strived for in other places. She kept going deeper into the tournament, defeating Simona Halep to reach her first final. In the other semifinal, Roberta Vinci eliminated world No.1 Serena Williams. An all-Italian clash was on, in the first time in history, and Pennetta was the favorite.

"I told my coach on the morning of the finals, no matter win or lose I am going to say that it is going to be my final Grand Slam." It was also her best.

Pennetta didn't know. She didn't expect.

But she was there playing that last point in the last Grand Slam of the year, the last Grand Slam she would ever play. And commanding it. She smacked a forehand for winner, completing a 7-6(4), 6-2 victory over her good friend Vinci. After 16 years on the tour, after 16 years of just trying, Pennetta had finally cracked the Grand Slam code.

"Why? How? I don't know," she says. "Maybe because you deserve it. Because you have been working so hard and it just happens. You are also lucky, but when you are, you also have to be ready to use that luck."

Pennetta had seized the day. The good girl had finished great.