NEW YORK – Two things had to happen Friday to derail Serena Williams’s sure-fire bid for a calendar Grand Slam.
Opponent Roberta Vinci had to play the match of her life.
Williams had to give Vinci some help. A lot of help.
In a perfect Slam-derailing storm, both happened.
Cancel the victory party Saturday night. Cancel the champion’s photo shoot Sunday. In an upset that ranks right up there with the bigger sports shockers in recent memory, Vinci upset the world No. 1 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 to reach the US Open women’s singles final.
“Don’t think. And run. And then, I won,” Vinci said in an on-court interview that will go down as one of the best, most endearing combination ever of vocabulary limited by emotion and copious arm gestures straight out of Taranto.
In the process, the 32-year-old Italian will be remembered as the quasher of Williams’ quest, joining a rogues’ gallery of Slam busters.
Iva Majoli’s victory over Martina Hingis in the 1997 French Open final was Hingis’s only loss in a major final that year; she won the other three without dropping a set. Ditto 17-year-old Kathleen Horvath’s shocker over Martina Navratilova in the fourth round at the 1983 French Open; Navratilova won the other three majors in succession after that, dropping just one set in 21 matches. It was the only time in 11 tries that Horvath even came close to beating her.
Those two were only party-poopers in retrospect, though; the pressure of actually going for that fourth and Slam-determining title never materialized.
But when Navratilova went Down Under for what was then the last Grand Slam of the season in 1984, on a true calendar Slam quest, 19-year-old Helena Sukova derailed her in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. In 18 of their 19 previous meetings, Navratilova had prevailed. And she won the first 6-1 before going down.
So it happens.
It just wasn’t expected to happen this time.
For two weeks, the biggest storyline in Flushing Meadows was Williams’ quest for the calendar Slam, and the 22nd career major title that would tie her with Steffi Graf. She already has two “Serena Slams” on her illustrious resumé – all four majors consecutively, though not in a calendar year. But this one is the true, old-school test of brilliance.
Afterwards, not that she was even close to willing to dissect it for public consumption (it might have been quite the X-rated diatribe), she insisted she wasn’t tight as she fought to close out the only major accomplishment in tennis that has eluded her.
“I mean, I made a couple of tight shots, to be honest, but maybe just about two. But that, I think, is just for me in any normal match you make two tight shots. Other than that, I don't think I was that tight,” she said.
Vinci said she could see Williams was tight.
So she was probably tight.
If you buy the rather reasonable theory that any match the world No. 1 plays is in her hands, she let this opportunity get away because she’s … human.
If you root for the underdog – and Vinci was the under-doggiest in recent memory with odds against her winning at 300-1 going in – you came away with the warm, fuzzy feeling of having witnessed a fellow human being enjoy the very best day of her life.
Everyone expected Williams to win. Even Vinci expected Williams to win as much as her old-school, throwback game, full of slice backhands and net approaches, has given many opponents trouble during a good hard-court summer.
But that’s why they play the games; otherwise, they might as well have handed Williams the trophy and her piece of history before the tournament began.
It took mere moments after the match, it seemed, for Williams to come into the interview room and get one final obligation over with. She wouldn’t take questions about how disappointed she was.
“I thought she played the best tennis in her career. You know, she's 33 (sic) and, you know, she's going for it at a late age. So that's good for her to keep going for it and playing so well. Actually, I guess it's inspiring. But, yeah, I think she played literally out of her mind,” said Williams, who is 33. “I don't think I played that bad. I made more unforced errors than I normally would make, but I think she just played really well. She did not want to lose today. Neither did I, incidentally. But she really didn't either.”
Williams has often said over the last two years, especially a year ago when she was the victim of early-round upsets in the first three majors before winning the US Open, that her opponents play out of their mind against her – that they rise up to the challenge of her superior talent and play with abandon. In this case, Williams wasn’t exaggerating.
There couldn’t have been a worse time for it to happen.
On the flip side of all that, an incredulous Vinci managed to completely charm the crowd that had come to witness the penultimate step in Williams’ quest.
She asked them for support, just occasionally, when she played a great point. After she won, she was charming, appropriately apologetic, appreciative, thrilled, excited, and completely cognizant of both the magnitude of the accomplishment and how much she deserved it.
Vinci was no less impressive in her press conference. When you have waited a lifetime for a moment you didn’t think would ever come, perhaps the wisdom of experience helps you handle it just right.
She looks the part of the underdog: undersized, thin, her face showing the effects of years of sunny tennis courts and competitive stress. The moment just wouldn’t have been the same had a youngster with her entire career in front of her done the impossible.
— Roberta Vinci (@roberta_vinci) August 29, 2015
Try to imagine a Kristina Mladenovic or a Genie Bouchard in that spot; nothing against them at all, but the back story here, the life’s work all wrapped into a single match, added an emotional element that buttressed the disappointment over William’s defeat.
Quickly forgiven and just as quickly embraced by a pro-Serena crowd, Vinci became an underdog to root for. And there’s more to come.
In the first all-Italian Grand Slam final ever, the first featuring two 30-something female adversaries in decades, Vinci will meet Flavia Pennetta for the right to win the US Open.
Pennetta, a year older at 33, rolled over world No. 2 Simona Halep so routinely it was as though the 59-minute minute, 6-1, 6-3 win didn’t even happen.
It wasn’t an upset on the same level as Vinci’s, but it was a shocker just the same.
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) September 11, 2015
Saturday’s final may be anti-climactic after Friday’s events, and certainly the price of tickets on the secondary market dropped like a stone the moment Williams and Vinci shook hands at the net.
But again, it’s going to be the best day of someone’s life. Don’t miss it.