ROME, Italy - When asked for his favorite memory of the quartet - Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani - who carried the Italian flag at the top of the WTA Tour for over a decade, Internazionali BNL d'Italia tournament director and former Fed Cup captain Sergio Palmieri is momentarily lost for words.
"Too many, too many!" he laughs. The one that springs to mind first, though, is unexpected but fitting. "In 2010, Pennetta and Schiavone - because they were the older ones - decided to play a joke on Vinci and Errani during a Fed Cup tie in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Normally, every night they'd go to play cards after dinner. This time, they asked me to find a stripper, bring him up to the hotel room and say he was looking for an autograph. I had to ask the Ukrainian girls for help, but I found the stripper - and that night was unforgettable. There was even a video, taken by Pennetta - of course, we cannot show it, but I have threatened them many, many times: If you are not good, I send the video to the press!"
It's an anecdote that seems entirely in character for a squad whose openness and friendship won them as many fans as their artistry and achievements. Two years ago, this was borne out amidst emotional scenes at the Foro Italico as a packed, passionate crowd gave Vinci a fine send-off after the last match of the former US Open finalist's career. Vinci had announced her intention of retiring in front of her home fans six months previously, but was still overcome with tears of joy as fans held up signs reading "Grazie Roby", a montage of her career highlights was shown on a big screen and Angelo Binaghi, the Italian Tennis Federation president, presented her with a bouquet of 21 roses - one for each year of her storied career.
The ceremony may have celebrated Vinci specifically, but in effect it drew the curtain on a golden era of Italian tennis - one that fans treasured even more for its unexpectedness. The previous decade-and-a-half had seen Vinci and her compatriots Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta and Sara Errani blossom slowly but surely into leading figures of the sport, players adored by crowds worldwide for the style they each brought to the court as well as their results. But by the time Vinci bade farewell in May 2018, Pennetta was two years into her own retirement and Schiavone mere months away from confirming hers at the US Open that year. Errani is the only member of the quartet who is still active, but has not been ranked inside the Top 50 since 2017.
For a long while, though, they made not just Italian tennis but the whole sport glorious. "I call them our Fab Four," says OkTennis.it journalist Diego Barbiani. "Everything they did for Italian tennis was amazing." Each of them reached at least one Grand Slam final in both singles and doubles: Schiavone and Pennetta lifted the singles trophies at Roland Garros 2010 and the US Open 2015 respectively; and while Errani and Vinci fell at the final hurdle of Roland Garros 2012 and the US Open 2015 - the latter the first ever all-Italian major final in the Open Era - they comprised a formidable partnership that garnered the Career Grand Slam, and five major crowns in total, in doubles between 2012 and 2014. All four attained career high rankings in the Top 10 in both disciplines.
"The most important impact was when Francesca won Roland Garros," says Palmieri. "This was like an explosion. Many people watched her match on TV, and many of those people had never seen tennis before. Everyone recognized her as a very unique person." Federica Cocchi, journalist with Italy's Gazzetta Dello Sport, agrees. "Everybody knew 'Schiavo'," she says. "She became so popular, invited on every TV show. The non-tennis crowd finally knew her."
Schiavone's triumph also got the ball rolling in terms of more widespread coverage: the SuperTennis TV channel gained the rights to broadcasting WTA Premier events in 2013 and has been steadily expanding ever since, says Barbiani: "This put the women's game in the spotlight alongside the men."
A year before the Schiavone explosion, Pennetta had become the first Italian player to be ranked inside the Top 10, and had also achieved some crossover attention. "She was the 'top model'," says Cocchi. "Always on magazine front covers, and she often attended fashion shows." Her US Open victory might have marked the end of her career - Pennetta announced her retirement during the trophy ceremony - but her celebrity continued to soar as a result. "After she announced her intention to quit, everybody was hoping she'd change her mind," remembers Cocchi.
It made for another stirring celebration in Rome the following year. "In the Foro Italico, it became real," says Cocchi. "Francesca made an emotioinal speech, everyone on and off the court was in tears. Then Fabio [Fognini, Pennetta's then-fiancé] arrived with a huge bouquet of red roses - a fairytale!"
The quartet's success was all the more notable for being unexpected. All four were late bloomers in the game: Schiavone became a Grand Slam champion at the age of 29, and played the best tennis of her career over the next two years; Pennetta became the oldest first-time major winner in the Open Era at the age of 33, and her US Open clash with childhood friend Vinci is the oldest Grand Slam final in terms of combined age in the Open Era. Vinci would go on to break the Top 10 a few months later, the week she turned 33. By comparison, Errani - who reached the Roland Garros final and cracked the Top 10 at the age of 25 - was a veritable prodigy.
"When an athlete becomes a champion you have many, many people saying, oh, I knew that, I said that," states Palmieri. "In reality we had some expectations of Pennetta and Vinci - but everybody said they played great tennis, but they were not great athletes. Schiavone, though, nobody believed in Italy that she could become a champion. And Errani, forget it!"
For Cocchi, the reasons for their late development are societal. "In Italy, it's difficult to find very young winning players," she says. "Maybe it's a matter of culture - we're always 'babies' for our mommies. And the fact that school and sport are never on the same level in Italy means that first you have to study, and only then you have time to play."
Barbiani, meanwhile, ascribes their late peaks to their game styles. "They didn't play power tennis," he says. "They had more things to put together, so the process of maturation was longer than for other players. Not every one of them was expected to be at the top, so that's also another thing that comes with experience, smart tennis and the ability to get out of situations that are difficult."
But although all four could be generally described as stylish late bloomers, each brought their own fundamentally unique spin to the game. "They were totally different people, every one of them bringing a different ingredient that made a very good recipe," says Cocchi. "Francesca the captain, a great fighter with very athletic tennis; Flavia the 'lady', a very strong character and very focused." Schiavone's battling qualities would be most evident in her victories in two of the six longest matches of the Open Era, both over Svetlana Kuznetsova on the Grand Slam stage: her 6-4, 1-6, 16-14 fourth-round win at the 2011 Australian Open (across four hours and 44 minutes) and 6-7(11), 7-5, 10-8 triumph in the second round of Roland Garros 2015 (three hours and 50 minutes) were two masterpieces of will and art, stamina and style.
Barbiani agrees: "Vinci was probably the best in terms of a classic style - Kvitova said she had the best slice on tour after losing to her at Wuhan 2015 - while Schiavone was more of an all-court player; most of the time when I saw her play she had the support of the crowd because of the kinds of shot she was able to put in court, like the tweener in New York [against Alona Bondarenko at the 2010 US Open]. The Pennetta backhand was an unbelievable stroke - and Errani played more defensive tennis, but the way she was able to get out of losing situations was incredible."
For Palmieri, their magic lay in a combination of everywoman appeal with qualities that made them truly special. "They gave the idea to the crowd that everybody can be a champion," he says. "All four were very little - I mean, Pennetta was the big one, and she was only 1m70 - nothing compared to Sharapova, Williams, Azarenka, all the great champions at the time. They did not have great physiques, they did not look like the top players with big shots - but they really used every single thing they had. It was a combination of being strong mentally, strong in the capacity to fight, very smart on court, and they were able to activate all their chances. It was something really unique because it was not just one thing.
"Errani really was the best example for anyone playing tennis in Italy - everyone was saying, if she can become that good, I can become too! She doesn't have a serve, she doesn't have a forehand, she doesn't have a backhand, she's not very strong. But she had a great head, very good tactics, she knows how to play and she knows how to play against anyone. That's something I don't see in many other tennis players. She gave 1,000% of her ability."
Though Schiavone and Pennetta racked up six quarterfinal showings at the Italian Open between them, only Errani progressed further, defeating Li Na and Jelena Jankovic in 2014 to become the first home finalist since Raffaella Reggi lifted the trophy in 1985, when the tournament was held in Taranto. She would lose to Serena Williams, but her run gave the home fans ample opportunity to display full-throated support for a local heroine - "more like a football match", remembers Barbiani. But the players' impact ran deeper than just headline results.
"I saw many, many times an incredible crowd, people going crazy left to right," says Barbiani. "We are Italian and that's the way we are. But not only in singles. In the last few years, I saw Errani playing with Martina Trevisan in doubles - and even if she had dropped in the rankings, the stands were absolutely full, and there were even people trying to sneak in from the outside to see their matches."
At the 2015 US Open, Pennetta and Vinci reaching the final was a significant shock: neither were ranked in the Top 20 at the time, but both stunned a Top 2 seed in the semifinals, Pennetta routing Simona Halep 6-1, 6-3 and Vinci peaking from a set down to halt Serena Williams's quest for the calendar-year Grand Slam in one of the greatest upsets of all time. But one of the beauties of tennis is that one narrative getting halted is merely the birth of a different one - and any sense that the results would have made for an underwhelming final was quickly swept away amidst not only its historic significance but the heartwarming bond of childhood friends sharing the finest moment of their careers.
This comradeship was a common theme of the quartet's careers, and nowhere was that more evident than in Fed Cup, in which they joined forces to capture four titles between 2006 and 2013. The last of those was sealed with a victory over Russia at home in Cagliari - and, three years after the Ukrainian hi-jinks, provided Palmieri with another indelible memory.
"It was one for the other, it was really a team," he reminisces. "It was four players, but they were one. When Vinci played the first match, Errani was in the locker room, because she was playing the next. But Schiavone and Pennetta were going from one corner to the other the whole match shouting 'Forza, forza!' It was Vinci playing, but it was like we had three players on court at the same time. It's not easy to forget that."
While the Fab Four's golden era may be over, their impact on fans both in Italy and worldwide, and the memories they created which epitomized the best of the sport, won't be forgotten any time soon.
IN NUMBERS: ITALY'S FAB FOUR
1 Grand Slam title (Roland Garros 2010)
1 Grand Slam RU (Roland Garros 2011)
5 Grand Slam QFs (Roland Garros 2001, US Open 2003, 2010, Wimbledon 2009, Australian Open 2011)
7 WTA titles (Bad Gastein 2007, Moscow 2009, Barcelona 2010, Strasbourg 2012, Marrakech 2013, Rio de Janeiro 2016, Bogota 2017)
Career high ranking: 4 (January 2011)
1 Grand Slam doubles RU (Roland Garros 2008 with Casey Dellacqua)
1 Grand Slam title (US Open 2015)
1 Grand Slam SF (US Open 2013)
5 Grand Slam QFs (US Open 2008, 2009, 2011, 2014, Australian Open 2014)
10 WTA titles (Sopot 2004, Bogota 2005, Acapulco 2006, Bangkok 2007, Vina del Mar 2008, Acapulco 2008, Palermo 2009, Los Angeles 2009, Marbella 2010, Indian Wells 2014)
Career high ranking: 6 (September 2015)
1 Grand Slam doubles title (Australian Open 2011 with Gisela Dulko)
2 Grand Slam doubles RUs (US Open 2005 with Elena Dementieva, US Open 2014 with Martina Hingis)
1 Grand Slam F (Roland Garros 2012)
2 Grand Slam SFs (US Open 2012, Roland Garros 2013)
4 Grand Slam QFs (Australian Open 2012, Roland Garros 2014-15, US Open 2014)
9 WTA titles (Palermo 2008, Portoroz 2008, Acapulco 2012, Barcelona 2012, Budapest 2012, Palermo 2012, Acapulco 2013, Rio de Janeiro 2015, Dubai 2016)
Career high ranking: 5 (May 2013)
5 Grand Slam doubles titles (Roland Garros 2012, US Open 2012, Australian Open 2013-14, Wimbledon 2014 with Roberta Vinci)
3 Grand Slam doubles RUs (Australian Open 2012, Roland Garros 2013-14 with Roberta Vinci)
1 Grand Slam F (US Open 2015)
3 Grand Slam QFs (US Open 2012-13, 2016)
10 WTA titles (Bogota 2007, Barcelona 2009, Luxembourg 2010, Barcelona 2011, 's-Hertogenbosch 2011, Budapest 2011, Dallas 2012, Katowice 2013, Palermo 2013, St Petersburg 2016)
Career high ranking: 7 (May 2016)
5 Grand Slam doubles titles (Roland Garros 2012, US Open 2012, Australian Open 2013-14, Wimbledon 2014 with Sara Errani)
3 Grand Slam doubles RUs (Australian Open 2012, Roland Garros 2013-14 with Sara Errani)