by Diego Barbiani
Early last week, the tennis world got one of the biggest surprises of the season — something tough to claim when considering what’s happened thus far in 2016.
Giovanni Malagò, president of CONI (Comitato Olimpico Nazionale Italiano), the Italian Olympic Committee, announced that Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci will reunite to play together in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Games.
The comeback of one of greatest double pairs of in the world — as they showed they were from 2012 to 2014 with five majors won and several other tournament victories all over the world — is an important step for Italy, as it now has a concrete chance to earn a medal.
Their success now, though, will depend on how much time they’ll spend to regain the rhythm and confidence that brought them both to new heights.
“Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci will play the doubles in Rio de Janeiro at the Olympic Games as we have solved every trouble we had,” Malagò said.
The Italian duo suddenly divided in 2015, before the WTA Premier Mandatory tournament in Indian Wells after some difficult moments earlier that year. They shared a court a couple of weeks before, in Fed Cup, when Italy was roughly defeated at home by France, from 2-0 up on Saturday. Errani and Vinci in particular suffered a tremendous 6-2, 6-1 loss from Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia in the decisive rubber.
That was their last time on court together, and in that particular situation, there were some negative signals as they seemed to refuse to talk to each other during the match. Also in California — before the press release that officially announced the pair’s separation — there were other signs of trouble: they avoided each other, training with other players at the same time and on different courts.
Together, Errani and Vinci had an incredible series of successes: collecting 23 WTA doubles titles including five Grand Slams to complete the career Grand Slam; winning a second title at the Australian Open in 2014 with a great comeback against the Russian duo of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina; and claiming two WTA Premier Mandatory and three WTA Premier 5 titles.
It seemed that the fairy tale wouldn’t have a happy ending, even if they tried to explain their move as something that came as a result of a lot of energy and sacrifice, and they were volunteering to take a break from that stressful life. They were No. 1 in WTA doubles ranking at that time with a big chance to be one of the favorites in Rio — considering also their advantage as an all-Italian couple, while the team that followed them as No. 1s, Switzerland’s Martina Hingis and India’s Sania Mirza, could not cannot play as a team for obvious reasons. They were the first Italian pairing to win a Grand Slam title in 2012 at Roland Garros, and they are still the only Italian players who won Wimbledon — in 2014; the year prior, they handed the Williams sisters just their fourth-ever defeat in Melbourne.
Still, nobody knows.
There were some speculation about fights between them that immediately fizzled out. They refused to talk — moving on, as if nothing happened — but they were not shown together any more apart from some sporadic occasions where they were with other Italian players.
At the beginning of 2015, Errani was very close to the Top 10 in singles ranking again while Vinci was so far from her best ranking — for a couple of months, she was not able to play her tennis that is so difficult to handle and varied, falling down from out of the Top 20 to No. 58 in the world the week after Wimbledon. “I have to be at 100 percent every time,” Vinci often says, because mixing up the game against these kind of players is not easy if she’s not feeling well physically and mentally. The second half of 2015 saw a tremendous turnaround and Vinci rose to No. 7 while Errani slipped outside the Top 20.
Vinci defeated Serena Williams in New York and found her best tennis was still able to give her unexpected joy and success — but never mentioned a comeback with Errani and, more importantly, she hardly thought to play doubles — especially because she was the only one from the ‘Italian Fab Four’ (with Schiavone, Pennetta and Errani) yet to break into the Top 10 in singles.
Until February of this year — when she won St. Petersburg.
In Indian Wells, where she reached the fourth round, Vinci said again that she just wanted to enjoy the moment and not think about the future or the idea of playing doubles again.
Three months later, though, things changed.
On Saturday, June 11, Malagò was in Ostuni for the wedding of Flavia Pennetta and Fabio Fognini. He spoke with Pennetta, who retired from tennis at the end of last year after the incredible victory at US Open, and she gave her word after several months of “negotiations” to play in doubles with Errani or Vinci if they would not play together. But also, in those days, Malagò spoke for a long time with Errani and Vinci, and it seems that they found out a way to put aside what happened between them — at least in the months until the event in Rio.
At the end of the day, it’s not clear if this reunion will also continue after the Olympic Games.
First of all, 2016 might be the last year for Vinci on the WTA Tour — we will know only at the end of the season what her decision will be about her future. Secondly, it’s not easy to figure out if this is a similar situation to what happened between Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka. The Czech duo divided at the end of 2013 due to a decision made by Hlavackova, who less than one year later apologized and said, “You don’t know what you have until you lose it.”
Hlavackova wanted to play with her friend Lucie Safarova but unfortunately for her, it didn’t work well and considering her good relationship with the “other Lucie” — both were called by Fed Cup captain Petr Pala to play in the final against Germany in 2014 — they teamed up again and came back quite easily in the Top 10, also attending the WTA Finals in Singapore.
Like the Czechs, it seems Errani and Vinci didn’t separate because of a business interest. Now, though, they have the possibility of a medal on the horizon — something that would excite everyone in Italian sport. Their decision to put aside their difference is pretty smart, even if Rio will be their last tournament — this time, they’ll finish without any second thoughts.