NEW YORK – Roberta Vinci is a time machine. Her tennis game is out of the 1970s, pounding opponents into mental submission with her slice backhand, finding angles that would make Euclid proud. In a game of baseline bombers, Vinci provides little pace. You need patience to beat her—and then more patience to finish her.
Angelique Kerber proved worthy of the mental challenge and is now in the U.S. Open semifinals. This was a very tricky match for the German lefty, a 180-degree shift from fourth round opponent Petra Kvitova, a fellow left-hander who smashes balls from the baseline with ferocity. On a windy Tuesday afternoon at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Kerber survived a first set against Vinci that was as much about steel as strokes. Over the first 10 games there were six breaks of serve, as Vinci’s slice backhand and daring forays to the net gave Kerber fits.
Kerber held at 5-5 in the opening set—thanks to a rare ace and a great recovery on a Vinci overhead for a winner—and Vinci’s guile finally ran out on her service game. With three set points against her, Vinci was called for a foot fault on a second serve to give Kerber the first set, 7-5. The second set was a blur. Vincere is the Italian word for winning and Kerber did a lot of that in the second. She was up 5-0 after just 15 minutes. Vinci didn’t throw in the towel in the final game—serving to stay in it, she took the game to deuce twice—but Kerber eventually advanced on an unforced error by the Italian. The 7-5, 6-0 match lasted just 78 minutes.
“She’s a tough opponent with her slice,” Kerber said. “I was trying to stay in the match and not think that I'm a break down. I tried to keep my mind a little bit relaxed, staying in the moment.”
“She's confident, she miss not so many balls, and she stay always focus every single point,” said Vinci. “She run a lot, so you have to push a lot to win a point. You have to run a lot.”
Kerber is now running toward a No. 1 ranking. She improved to 18-2 in majors this year and is 19-6 against Top 20 players in 2016. As has been written throughout the tournament, Kerber can become the No. 1 player in the world with a win over Serena Williams in the final or Williams not reaching the final. The last German player to be ranked No. 1 was Stefanie Graf in 1997, a player Kerber considers both an icon and a mentor as this New Yorker piece on Kerber’s rise in the last 18 months explains. The Open has long held a warm spot for the German: Her breakthrough tournament came here in 2011 when she made the semifinals at age 23 before losing to eventual champion Sam Stosur.
For Vinci, the second oldest player in the draw, this completes a remarkable 12 months which included her 2–6, 6–4, 6–4 U.S. Open semifinal win over Serena Williams last year when she was the No. 43-ranked player in the world. It was arguably the greatest upset in women’s tennis history, ahead of Helena Sukova shocking Martina Navratilova at the 1984 Australian Open semis, ahead of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario over Steffi Graf in the 1989 French Open final and all the other Open era upsets. Vinci had entered the match a pedestrian 25–20 in 2015, had never beaten Williams in four tries, and at 32 years and six months was the oldest first-time Grand Slam semifinalist in the Open era. Vinci arrived in New York this year ranked No. 8 in the world but she’ll be out of the Top 10 next week given all the points she had to defend from her runner-up finish.
There are matches on the road to a deep run at a major that are much trickier than the scoreboard indicates. This was one of those matches for Kerber, who thought her way through Vinci’s complex game to land just two steps away from a U.S. Open title.
“I think I grow a lot in the last few years,” Kerber said. “Also, with my mentality I’m staying more positive and believing in my game. I think that right now I can win matches like that.”
The semifinals await—and Kerber is going to be a tough out.