NEW YORK – The end came at 2:56 p.m. Eastern Time and the final dagger was a delicate forehand drop half-volley, of all things, on triple match point. Roberta Vinci cupped her hands to her face, stunned by her own accomplishment. The calendar Grand Slam, a dream Saturday for tennis fans in search of a once-in-a-generation accomplishment, all gone thanks to the soft, slice-happy hands of a 32-year-old woman from Taranto, Italy, who had failed to reach beyond the second round of any major this year.
Where does Vinci’s 2–6, 6–4, 6–4 U.S. Open semifinal win on Friday over Serena Williams rank among upsets in the history of women’s tennis? Hell, let’s put it at the top, 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. No 43 beating No. 1 given everything that was at stake? Madre Mia! Vinci 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.
“Indescrivibile,” said Vinci, when asked for an Italian word to describe what had just happened.
Make no mistake: Vinci won this match. She played steadier than Serena in the bigger moments, she stuck with her tactics (slice Serena to death and come up to net when she could) and she was fearless in front of an announced crowd of 22,000-plus that was 99% in favor of the American.
Serena was off the court by 2:57 p.m. and her 12-question press conference lasted just over 10 minutes. She was ticked, understandably so, and you would have liked more from her given the historical nature of her season. But you also understood the disappointment, even if she didn’t want to go there. “I don’t want to talk about how disappointing it is for me,” Serena said, tartly. “If you have any other questions, I’m open for that.”
Serena said Vinci played the best tennis of her career—“she played literally out of her mind”—and reiterated that she did not feel pressure to win here. That first part was true; the latter not so. Serena was nervy throughout the match and finished with 40 unforced errors to 20 for Vinci. The Italian used her backhand throughout the match, taking away Serena’s pace and mitigating her power. Vinci said she sensed Serena was fighting her nerves during the match.
“I think a lot,” Vinci said. “She broke one racquet at the end of the second set when I won the second set, and also she make two double faults. And on my mind, I say, ‘Think about this. She's nervous.’ So try to keep it and fight every single point.”
The match lasted two hours on the nose and Vinci did what few have done with Serena—converted on four break points, out of 10 on the match. With the two tied at one set apiece, Serena broke Vinci in the second game of the final set and was a point away from going up 3–0. That might have been too much for the Italian to overcome. But Vinci broke back— and broke again in the seventh game of the set that was highlighted by one of the great points of the tournament.
With Williams serving to go up 4–3, Vinci won a spectacular 18-shot rally by charging the net after a backhand slice shot and hitting a forehand drop volley off a running Serena backhand. Upon winning the point, Vinci put her right hand up to her ear, and channeling her inner-Hulk Hogan, she waved her hands up and down, urging the crowd to show her some love. As a gassed Serena tried to catch her breath by the stands, for sports fans of a certain age, it was hard not to think about the possibility of seeing a Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson finish. “I won a great point and of course all the crowd was for her,” Vinci said, laughing. “And I say, ‘Come on. One time for me.’”
Vinci said she never totally believed it was possible to win, even when she served for the match in the final set. “I was 5–3 up, but I didn't say on my mind, ‘Okay, I won.’” Vinci said. “She can break me, you know. She has a good return. She always push me a lot on the second serve.”
But Vinci served out the match at love and she won again afterward with one of the best post-match, on-court interviews you’ll ever see. Asked by ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi how to describe what had just happened, she shook her head, sighed and said, “Sorry, it is an incredible moment for me, like a dream. I beat Serena. I’m in the final. So many things in my mind.”
When asked by Rinaldi, “When you woke up this morning, what gave you the belief this was possible? She looked at Rinaldi, puzzled. “No,” she said, and the crowd let out a roar. Before she left the court, she apologized to the audience. “For the American people, for Serena, for the Grand Slam and everything,” she said. “But today is my day. Sorry, guys.”
Outside the players lounge following the match, Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach, said he sensed it might not be Serena’s day given she that she had not had a good morning of practice. “Players don’t wake up the same every day,” he said. “Today was not a good day. I think she lost her way mentally. She lost her path tactically.”
Vinci’s win ended Serena’s 33-match winning streak in Grand Slam matches, one that started after losing to Alize Cornet in the third round of Wimbledon in 2014. She remains one Grand Slam title behind Steffi Graf (22) for the most majors in the Open era and she will resume that quest in January at the Australian Open in 2016. There is no reason to believe that the 33-year-old Serena will drop in quality in 2016.
Vinci said she had booked a flight to leave New York City at 10 p.m. on Saturday and joked that maybe she could still make the flight if Saturday’s final against Flavia Pennetta ended quickly. Most would have assumed that the winner of Serena-Vinci would face Simona Halep, the world No. 2, but—forza!—Pennetta, an entertaining Italian baseliner who is five months older than Serena, dismissed Halep in 59 minutes. Pennetta and Vinci are the third and fourth Italian women to reach a Grand Slam singles title after Francesca Schiavone (who won the French Open 2010 and lost in 2011) and Sara Errani, who lost in the final of Roland Garros in 2012. Pennetta will rise to No. 8 if she wins the All-Italian final. Vinci can go as high as No. 11 and jumped into the Top 20 with her win over Serena. “Tomorrow one Italian win for sure,” Vinci said, excited, which was likely the opposite reaction of the USTA having lost out on Serena going for the calendar Slam.
When sports surprises you, as it did on Friday afternoon in the best way, it’s a wonder to witness, and Vinci had the same look of stunned disbelief afterward in her press conference as most of the reporters asking her questions.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “Like a dream. I'm really happy but of course I'm a little bit really sad for Serena because she's incredible player, No. 1, almost career—all the Grand Slams.
“But what I have to say? I'm happy. I don't know. It's tough to explain my emotion right now. Maybe tomorrow morning I can tell you something, but now it's amazing. It's magic moment for me. You work so hard for a long time, and it's incredible. Tomorrow final. I feel good right now. I can maybe touch the sky with my finger.”
Later in the press conference, an American journalist asked Vinci to name the biggest upset she could recall in women’s tennis. Confused briefly by the question, she quickly asked an Italian journalist in the front row to translate before finally giving an answer.
“Today,” she said.