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Vinci Bids Farewell In Rome

May 15th 2018

Roberta Vinci spent the dying months of her career already prepping for the end, the weeks daydreaming of the impending day, and the days impatiently crossing every 24 hours off her calendar. So, it should be no surprise that when the final match of her career finally arrived on Monday in the first round of Rome, she was ready.

Under the eyes of the naked statues of Pietrangeli Court, of Aleksandra Krunic, her opponent, and of the screaming, yelling, Mexican-waving fans, for one fleeting moment the calendar days whisked back to a time when she was free. For one final set, the Italian delicately placed her serve to the corners, she swept to the net in a wave of looping forehands and slices so low that they kissed the net.

There were specific moments of awe, too. When Krunic drilled a low backhand straight at her as she breezed to the net, she countered with a pitch-perfect low volley deep into the corner, followed by a backhand smash to dead the point. Little boys in the crowd screamed. When she was charged with serving out the first set, she closed it off with - what else? - a glorious serve and volley. Overall, the swift 6-2 set was one final exhibition of her style of play that has made the experience of watching her seem like a portal to a time long ago.

 Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe)

This a role she was almost born into, for she arrived at the top level of sport precisely at the crossroads of women’s tennis history. Her first ever tour-level match occurred at the US Open 2001, a tournament significant as the venue of Venus Williams’ fourth slam in six tries, the blend of supreme athleticism and shot making that underlined Williams’ dominance changed the sport forever, catalyzing the transformation to the physical, power-infused sport that we know today. From her fresh-faced beginnings at 18 years old, the 54, not-entirely-athletic Vinci has been fighting an uphill battle.

Even before her greatest moment, across the net from Serena Williams in the semi-final of the 2015 Open, she had mulled consistently around, entertaining with her contrasts. A steady member of the top 50 who swooped in and out of the top 20 and 30, she captured 10 titles across all surfaces. In this era of homogenized tennis courts, Vinci was also one of the few remaining players whose game seemed built to adapt to all surfaces, even when their differences were extreme. After the hardcourts of the US Open, where she compiled 4 quarterfinals in 5 years between 2012 and 2016, she always seemed most comfortable at the sight of her slice skidding low on the grass, yet 5 of her 10 titles came on clay.

When Vinci sliced until she had somehow engineered the greatest upset of a generation, stopping Serena Williams’ march to the Grand Slam in the semi-finals of the 2015 US Open, the victory was hailed as proof that the old way of playing tennis still works and should still flourish. But it more seemed to speak to her own fortitude and the effort it took, 32 years into her being to capture a massive win.

 Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe)

I had a difficult and different style of tennis,” she said on Monday. “But sometimes it’s tough - you have to stay in good form. You have to run a lot and you have to think about every single shot. But I stopped, so now I can relax and don’t think about the slice and dropshot and everything.”

Conventional wisdom would have suggested that the only fitting final defeat for Vinci should have been at the hands of a big, booming shotmaker, the genre of player that has snuffed her likeness from the sport. But this one seemed even more apt. After storming through the first set, Vinci finally hit a wall in the shape of Aleksandra Krunic.

There are many similarities between the two - Krunic also stands at 54 and also makes up for her lack of strength by smothering her opponents with her slices, volleys, and guile. But the contrasts were stark. Vinci’s slow, looping topspin was easily aped by the whippy spin generated by a game modeled on the ATP tour. As Vinci continued to approach the net, her hopeful volleys were met by Krunic’s raw athleticism – and the numerous passing shots that whistled past.

As Krunic systematically took apart the old and tired game of Roberta Vinci in sets two and three, it was a reminder that there are still players who play with her ethos. Some still hit slices, some still approach the net. But Vinci was the last of her kind, an endangered species who fought until the very end. And now she can relax.