NEW YORK — The day before Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta went out and won their U.S. Open semifinals — Vinci stunningly ending Serena Williams' Grand Slam bid; Pennetta pulling off a lesser upset — Pennetta forwarded Vinci a photo she saw on Facebook.
It was a picture of the two Italians when they teamed up to win the 1999 French Open junior doubles title, a reminder of their shared past, growing up 40 miles (65 kilometers) apart in coastal towns in Puglia, a region on the heel of their country's boot-shaped peninsula.
And then, on the morning of their semifinals at Flushing Meadows, Vinci excitedly returned the favor, approaching Pennetta in the locker room to show her a video she unearthed of the pair being interviewed on TV after that long-ago triumph as teenagers in Paris.
"We were small. Really small," Pennetta said. "She said, 'Look! Look! Listen to our voices then!'"
Vinci noticed Pennetta's eyes welling.
"She told me, 'Don't cry. You always cry,'" Pennetta recounted. "And I said, 'I'm not crying.' And she said, 'Yes. Yes, you are.'"
And why not? Look how far these two have come, from opponents as kids in local youth tournaments in Italy, to opponents as 30-somethings in the U.S. Open final Saturday, half a world away.
"It's crazy that, after however many years — 15 years? so many years — here we are," Vinci summed up, "playing each other in a Grand Slam final."
Two decades ago, Vinci said, "I always won. She was too neurotic. I was calm."
In tour-level matches as pros, though, Pennetta leads their head-to-head series 5-3.
The first major tennis final between two players from Italy was treated as such back home, earning front-page coverage.
When Pennetta's semifinal ended, Italian reporters sitting in the press seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium raced to get closer to the court, the better for taking photos with their cellphones. When Vinci's news conference ended, those reporters thrust their match tickets on the table in front of her and asked for autographs. She obliged.
So instead of Williams' pursuit of history, there's this: Pennetta is 33, Vinci 32; whoever wins Saturday would be oldest first-time major champion in the Open era, which dates to 1968.
Pennetta was seeded 26th. Vinci was unseeded, because she was ranked only 43rd at the start of the U.S. Open. Until Friday, Pennetta's career Grand Slam semifinal record was 0-1. Vinci's was 0-0.
None of that mattered.
First, Pennetta used a 15-point run to take firm control and beat No. 2-seeded Simona Halep, the 2014 French Open runner-up, 6-1, 6-3.
Pennetta's news conference happened while Williams vs. Vinci was in the second set, and the last question from an Italian reporter was: How can somebody beat Serena?
"I don't know," Pennetta said. "But let's wait and see whether Serena makes it to the final."
Well, sure enough, the No. 1-seeded Williams did not, losing to Vinci 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
That ended Williams' 33-match winning streak at majors, including 26 in a row this season, two shy of completing the first calendar-year Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988.
Vinci's slices and half-volleys and net rushes threw off Williams.
"She played, literally, out of her mind," Williams said.
Williams was not at her best, and Vinci noticed the nerves.
Just one of the many measures of just how improbable this result was: Williams entered the U.S. Open with 21 Grand Slam titles, while Vinci came into the tournament with a losing record in Grand Slam matches, 40-43.
"Every so often," Vinci said, "a miracle happens."
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