Flavia Pennetta looking 'to know who I am' away from tennis

As she arrived on the grounds for the US Open final, Flavia Pennetta almost had to rub her eyes in surprise.

It wasn't because she was about to play her first Grand Slam final at age 33, ranked 26th in the world and not considered a top title contender going into the tournament. It was because her fiancé and fellow pro Fabio Fognini was there in front of her.

Catching a glimpse of him through the shutting patio doors, Pennetta stopped and stared.

"I didn't know he was here," she told a small group of reporters following her victory this past Saturday. "I just went one hour before the match and he was sitting in the garden. I was like: 'Huh? How did you do that?' It's amazing to be with him here. I think he also has to realize that I [won] a Grand Slam."

Fognini, who beat Rafael Nadal in the third round before exiting in his next match, was supposed to be in Siberia preparing for Italy's Davis Cup tie against Russia. But when Pennetta knocked off No. 2 seed Simona Halep in the semifinals, he jumped back to be in the stands for the biggest match of her career.

Pennetta should have been used to surprises by then. Not only had she come through a crowded field to make the final during an otherwise lackluster season, but her opponent was not Serena Williams, who had been the heavy favorite in the other half of the draw.

Instead, Pennetta faced childhood friend Roberta Vinci, who sensationally ousted Williams in the previous round. Having played club matches and roomed together as juniors, the two Italians remained good friends and now played for one of the sport's biggest titles. Fognini, usually very demonstrative on the court during his own matches, watched quietly as Pennetta won the match in straight sets. Pennetta and Vinci hugged at the net and even sat next to each other before the trophy ceremony.

For Pennetta, it was another eye-rubbing moment -- the fulfillment of a dream she had stopped chasing. "We had this conversation two months ago, with my physio and my [coach]," she said. "They asked me, 'Do you think you can win a Grand Slam?' I say no. So now they are laughing so much because they say, '20 days ago, you say no, and now we have the trophy.'"

As she hoisted the trophy, Pennetta produced yet another surprise, capping her on-court interview by announcing she was retiring. There was some initial confusion as to whether she was stopping right there or would play through the year (she eventually clarified that it was the latter), but her words gave her victory even more of a storybook quality. It had not been long since Pennetta decided she wanted to use the occasion to mark her plans.

"This morning," she said, having discussed it only with her team. "Today was a perfect day to say something like this."

Her overall decision to retire, meanwhile, came only a few weeks before the tournament. Though she still enjoys playing, and had so many of her friendships and personal history wrapped up in the game, the grind of going from tournament to tournament became wearing.

"If you play 24 weeks, 20 weeks, it doesn't matter how many weeks you play. You have to feel, all the time, that you want that so badly," Pennetta said. "In the moment, when it's not like that anymore, when it's coming and it's going ...

"There [are] some things you want to do, like Fed Cup -- you are playing for your country, so you're really motivated to do that. You play the US Open, so you are really motivated. But there are some tournaments where I don't feel [it's] special anymore. And that's the point, when you don't feel always, something has changed."

But even if "the fire inside" now only flickers, no tournament makes her light up like the US Open. The only predictable thing about Pennetta's unlikely journey, then, might be where it happened. The former top-10 player reached four quarterfinals and her first Grand Slam final in New York.

"Somehow it's my tournament. There is something that I really enjoy here," she said.

Once she hangs up her racket, there will be other places to explore. While Pennetta and Fognini plan to get married next year, he will stay on tour and she does not want to start a family right away.

"I would like to have a family in the future, but it's not something I would love to have right now," she said.

First is "to know who I am," away from tennis, "what I like to do" and "how is the life with Fabio going to be."

And no doubt with a few surprises along the way.