Matt Zemek

For older generations, Federico Fellini was the quintessential Italian creator of visual art on screen, and Ennio Morricone the ultimate creator of music which accompanied Sergio Leone’s memorable Spaghetti Westerns. In “The Godfather” Nino Rota’s music provided an unforgettable soundtrack to the film directed by one Italian-American, Francis Ford Coppola, based on a novel by another, Mario Puzo. All those works of art — the filmmakers, the composers, the writers — are towering feats of creative achievement, but they are, to varying degrees, cloudy and grim. This is another way of saying that even if the hero survived a situation intact, s/he walked away from a hellish episode with a scar and an embedded reminder of life’s brutality and difficulty.


In the 1997 film “Life is Beautiful,” Roberto Benigni directed and starred in a work of art which subverted the dominant paradigm described above. The emphasis of the film was not on the brutality and difficulty of life — though it coursed through the entire movie — but on the need to find the happiness, the sunshine piercing through the clouds. In marked contrast to the complexity of a Fellini film, the violence of a Spaghetti Western, or the ruthless mafia world portrayed by Puzo (in a book) and Coppola (in a film), Benigni used comedy to laugh in the face of death and suffering on a massive scale. He tapped into the power of a child’s imagination to give filmgoers a dramatically different artistic portrait of the human condition.


It is this Benigni-created world I think of when I consider the tennis career of Roberta Vinci, who played her last match on Monday at the Foro Italico in Rome, falling to Aleksandra Krunic in three volatile and highly emotional sets. Vinci retires as a giant in the history of the sport in doubles, which deserves its own separate treatment and a considerable level of fanfare. Yet, in this solo-athlete sport, the ride into the sunset of a particular individual focuses the mind and heart on singles. In this regard, Vinci owned a Benigni-like capacity to laugh and smile all the way through her singles career… and fortunately, the world got to see this side of her before she stepped away.


Vinci’s overall singles portfolio is not remarkable if viewed simply as a collection of results on a sheet, a resume handed down in cold print. She made four major quarterfinals — all at the U.S. Open — and three other fourth rounds in a major-tournament career which stretches back to 2001 but did not involve regular appearances in main draws until 2005. By those measurements alone, Vinci carved out what could be called a middle-class niche linking her with thousands of WTA players in the course of the 50-year Open Era of professional tennis.


Yet, unlike those other thousands — many of which don’t immediately leap to mind for the casual tennis fan (and even some die-hards) — the name “Roberta Vinci” owns an immortal place in tennis history. Current generations of tennis fans will always be able to make the association in their minds. In the year 2525 (to reference the 1969 Zager and Evans song), schoolchildren who read a tennis encyclopedia (via the newest technology o the time) will see that Serena Williams almost won the 2015 Grand Slam, but was denied at the U.S. Open by Vinci in the semifinals. 


Not only is that moment arguably the greatest upset in women’s tennis history or the entire history of tennis in any era; it is worthy of being in the discussion as the greatest upset in ANY sport. It doesn’t have to be No. 1 on your list, but it is in the mix.


What stands out about that Friday in New York (the match was postponed by rain from Thursday night, which gave Serena more time to think about the stakes) is the way Vinci reacted to her moment. She had defeated a wildly popular American athlete in pursuit of a seminal achievement in tennis history, and she did so in New York City. Vinci knew that she had successfully played the role of spoiler, a reality she didn’t hide from in her post-match remarks, but she expressed so much natural and unaffected joy, grinning from ear to ear, that it was hard not to embrace her authenticity and happiness.


It was a tennis version of “Life is Beautiful,” without the dark backdrop of World War II. It was sunshine without the irony, sweetness without an undercurrent of sorrow. 


Many other athletes might have made a boilerplate statement about how sorry they were to have spoiled the party and shown comparatively little emotion. Nothing would have been “wrong” about such a reaction, to be clear — on-court interviews are one of the more emotionally difficult things top pro tennis players do, and they often get criticized for every microscopic (perceived) error or slight contained in their words. Yet, Vinci’s burst of profound happiness — acknowledging the fans’ disappointment but not apologizing for being happy — struck a lot of people as an emotionally pitch-perfect way to meet the occasion. There was an honesty and integrity not all athletes possess. This doesn’t make other athletes worse, as a point of emphasis; it makes Vinci BETTER. 


When she then lost to countrywoman and friend Flavia Pennetta (who announced her retirement after the match) in the 2015 U.S. Open final, Vinci did not cease to relish the occasion. That another Italian woman was there with her probably made the whole experience easier to process, but one suspects (at least I do) that Vinci still would have beamed and grinned and laughed if Simona Halep (Pennetta’s semifinal opponent) had lifted the U.S. Open trophy.


Some of us never get “a moment” in life. Among those who do, not all of them handle that moment in ways which allow the larger public to see inside their soul… and in a way which is good and nourishing. 


Roberta Vinci forged — and earned — her moment. She then responded to it with a natural love of life anyone could appreciate.


Life was beautiful for Vinci then, and on the occasion of her retirement nearly three years after that day in New York, it remains beautiful.


Hopefully, it always will.

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