There is not a sentient being in this city or any other who would have predicted that two Italians in their early thirties would contest the US Open women’s singles final on Saturday and that Serena Williams, perhaps the finest player in the history of the women’s game, would be denied a shot at the first calendar grand slam in 27 years.
But that is what transpired here on Friday afternoon when Roberta Vinci, a 32-year-old doubles specialist ranked 43 in the world and rated a 300-1 chance by bookmakers to defeat Williams, beat the defending champion and world No1 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 in exactly two hours of an extraordinary match.
It was an upset even more unexpected than Robin Soderling beating Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2009, one to put alongside George Bastl beating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2002; certainly it outranks Melanie Oudin’s ousting of Maria Sharapova here six years ago. History tells us Mary Pierce’s victory over Steffi Graf in the 1994 French Open left Paris stunned but not like this. This had extra edge, more baggage, greater significance.
Vinci plays her compatriot Flavia Pennetta, 33, in Saturday’s final, which retains a certain fairytale significance as the first all-Italian title decider of the open era and might yet provide enough highlights to drown out memories of what for Williams was an unmitigated disaster. Whoever wins will be the oldest winner of the title in the open era. Williams was inconsolable afterwards. “I don’t want to answer any questions about how disappointing it was for me. If you have any other questions …
“She played out of her mind. I don’t think I played too bad. She did not want to lose today and neither did I. I didn’t feel pressure. I never feel pressure. I made a couple of tight shots but that’s maybe normal. Last question? I was really happy to get that win at Wimbledon, three grand slams. Thank you.” And with that she was gone.
In the first semi-final Pennetta played way above her world ranking of 26, dominating the out-of-sorts world No2, Simona Halep, for all but the start of the second set to win 6-1, 6-3. But the Italian of the day was Vinci.
In faltering English and shaking her head in disbelief, she gathered her breath before saying immediately after her finest two hours on a tennis court: “This is an incredible moment for me. It’s like a dream. I’m in the final. I beat Serena. For me it is an amazing moment. I lost the first set, tried to save every single point. I tried not to think about the match, about Serena. It is the best moment of my life. I’m sorry for the American people, for Serena, for the grand slam. But today’s my day. Sorry guys.”
Flat-footed, frozen for worryingly long periods on the baseline in the second and third sets and wearing an expression throughout that would not look out of place on a pallbearer, Williams was a shell at the end. She struck 16 aces and four double faults; there were 26 unforced errors, hardly calamitous, but they came at the most inopportune moments. She even won more points than the winner: 93-85. Still she was soundly beaten at the end.
A calendar slam was there for the taking, not to mention her 22nd major to pull alongside the last player to do that, Graf, in 1988. Vinci, from Palermo, was having none of it, even though she admitted she had come to the semi-final only to enjoy the experience. “I didn’t expect that, no. At the end there was a lot of pressure. In my mind, I said, ‘Just put the ball on the court. Don’t think and run.’ And then I won.”
The American looked irredeemably distressed in the first set, head drooped, feet dragging, Still, she wrapped it up 6-2 in just over half an hour and all seemed well. Perhaps that was the source of her lingering despond: self-doubt, at 33, after 15 years climbing then conquering the mountain to greatness. This surely has been her most stressful year – one in which she lost 12 sets in the four majors – and, whatever her protestations that this was “just another title”, she transparently felt the weight of her task.
Williams opened lethargically, screaming “come on” at herself after striking her third ace to save break point in only her second service game.
When she hit long for the fourth time she handed Vinci an unexpected present after 12 minutes. Patrons leaned forward ever so slightly in their seats. Williams broke and held quickly to briefly ease concerns in the plush offices of ESPN, the host broadcaster, not to mention the millions of tennis fans urging the oldest player left in the tournament on towards the final.
This was Vinci’s first major singles semi-final but her smile told how she was relishing every second, even when beaten in the point. She has reached the quarter-finals here twice. This time, even when serving at only 50%, the eminent doubles specialist utilised her long-refined close-quarter skills, winning 18 of 25 visits to the net.
A final wayward backhand cost Williams the second set and they went to a third for the first time in five meetings. Williams smashed her racket at the changeover and got a warning. It barely registered.
The script said that, if a third set were needed, it would be quick and brutal. It was brutal and it lasted 49 minutes. When Vinci, left, won the best rally of the match to take the seventh game to deuce, she turned to the crowd and yelled, “What about me?” What about her, indeed?
Williams called for the trainer and had her right foot untaped, before refitting an ankle brace. She was falling to pieces. At Wimbledon she was down two breaks in the third against Heather Watson, who served for the match, yet she came through. When the Italian held for 5-3 with a 69mph serve, a reprise seemed unlikely.
Vinci served for the match. An outrageous half-volley drop shot took her to 30-love. A mangled volley by Williams gave the Italian three match points.
Another neat half-volley chip completed the impossible task. If the new roof on Arthur Ashe stadium had been completed, it would have fallen in at that moment.
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