Flavia Pennetta, having spent much of her tennis career just off Main Street, will finish it in the game’s slowly rising powerhouse, China, as the reigning and retiring US Open champion.

It promises to be a curiously low-key exit after the drama of the finest hour and a half of a career that properly began at the age of 17, when she won the French Open girls doubles with her close friend Roberta Vinci in 1999, and rose to a glorious peak here on Saturday, when she beat the rain by four minutes and her compatriot by 7-6, 6-2 in the first all-Italian major final.

She told Vinci at the net, “Va bene. It’s perfect. Go, go.” Vinci, a 32-year-old doubles specialist not far from the end of her own career, was astonished. So were fans in the Arthur Ashe Stadium (not to mention hundreds of journalists filing their stories on deadline), when Pennetta confirmed her farewell to the sport during her victory speech.

This US title was supposed to go to 33-year-old Serena Williams in front of her own fans in the twilight of a far more illustrious career, as she reached for the first calendar slam in 27 years. Vinci killed those dreams in the semi-finals and the ultimate glory went to another 33-year-old, Pennetta, who had pulled off a minor upset against the world No2, Simona Halep. It was the sort of story made in Hollywood but there was nothing fictional about what was witnessed here over two days. “It is sport, no?” as Rafael Nadal says. And, as in most stories about sport and life, heartache and joy converged.

Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon in 2013 in her 47th major campaign, then quit a couple of months later after losing to Halep in faraway Mason, Ohio; Pennetta, who won a major after 49 attempts, will say goodbye to her sport in Wuhan, then Beijing. With the best will in the world, that is not exactly a ticker-tape parade through Rome.

Amateur psychologists will mull over these curious decisions: were they inspired by a desire to leave quietly after long, frustrating careers, or were there more compelling and private reasons? In Bartoli’s case, her body just gave up on her. As for Pennetta, it is a fair stab to suggest it was her heart tugging at her brain as much as the usual baggage of injuries.

Not only was her hunger for tennis waning – she almost quit last year with a wrist injury – but she had found love again. Beaming down from the stands in celebration of her triumph on Saturday was the Italian tennis radical, Fabio Fognini. He had put Nadal out of the men’s draw in the third round, returned to Italy to wind down and rushed back to New York when Pennetta made the final. It is fair to say he cares for her and she for him. But here the Pennetta story becomes almost unbearably poignant. In 2011 she put her name to an autobiography that was achingly frank about her relationship with the former world No1 Carlos Moya, a Spaniard with all the obvious allure of Fognini.

Pennetta adored Moya to the point of obsession. She was a young and ambitious player but he was famous and glamorous, a bigger name by far, a star who had won the French Open a year before her own arrival there in the juniors, and Pennetta followed him everywhere with puppy-like devotion. They were together for three years. Pennetta seriously considered retiring from tennis at the age of 25 to start a family. Then a story broke about Moya’s affair with a TV presenter and Pennetta was devastated. Never more than athletically slim, she lost nearly two stones. The perfect life she had envisaged had evaporated.

There was nowhere to turn but back to tennis. She played it as well as she was capable, working behind a decent serve with crisp, disciplined ground strokes. There was no embroidery, just honest, conventional effort. Not many fans bought a ticket to watch Pennetta play. It took her five years to break into the WTA main tour. Thereafter she had success here and there, winning 10 titles before Saturday, where victory lifted her from No26 in the world to No8.

After her victory she confided to reporters in Nadalesque tones: “I’m a tennis player but I’m also a person. The moon is going up and down, no?”

She added: “In the last three years I just keep playing because for me it’s something I really love to do. I [didn’t] see myself without tennis. It’s not easy for a player to, I think, take this decision and say it’s over. It’s like a new life completely. So sometimes it is the more scary thing, no? Because life, it’s going to change, but most of the time it changes for the better. I hope so.”

This article titled “Flavia Pennetta’s love affair with tennis to end with a low-key farewell” was written by Kevin Mitchell at Flushing Meadows, for The Guardian on Sunday 13th September 2015 17.41 UTC

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