Serena Williams finally buckles under pressure in final leg of Grand Slam bid
NEW YORK – The sound of a siren came floating into Arthur Ashe Stadium at 2:32 p.m. Eastern Time Friday afternoon, sending the usual dreadful message: Emergency. Someone in crisis. No one took it for cheap symbolism, then, because we had all seen this before; because Serena Williams had courted catastrophe throughout her legacy-sealing Grand Slam campaign and always survived; because no one could see what was coming. Looking back, of course, everybody’s a genius. And the hack writer just can’t resist.
Because here, then, came the oldest story in the book, and when forced to retell David-and-Goliath you pretty much forget about subtlety. The giant was unbeatable and the final rock was about to fly and, yes, a siren wailed in warning. A minute later Serena double-faulted twice. The 2015 U.S. Open semifinal stood then at a set apiece, 3-3 in the third, but the knees of the best server—and player—in the history of women’s tennis had just buckled. Serena recovered some, cracked a 126 mph ace—her fastest of the fortnight—to set up game point, and for a moment seemed set for another great escape.
“Every single time she’s been able to play vintage Serena and get herself out of holes,” said American tennis great and commentator, Chris Evert. “The whole match I thought she could pull it out—because that’s all I’ve seen.”
But then Roberta Vinci, 32 years old, 43rd-ranked and wholly unfamiliar with the rarefied air of a major singles semifinal, slung Serena about the court in a literally breathtaking 18-ball rally that nearly sent the flailing six-time Open champion headlong into a courtside TV camera. Vinci put a hand to an ear, gestured at herself and screamed in Italian, “Come on! One time for me!” to the 23,771 fans who had come expecting to see a different kind of history made. Two ragged Serena groundstrokes later, Vinci walked away with her second break of the set, the crowd turning her way, and nerves so jangly that her hands shook.
“I was a little bit scare,” said Vinci after. Asked for the point in the match when she first realized that she could win, Vinci found the notion absurd. “Never,” she said.
She wasn’t alone. Though a winner, with partner Sara Errani, of five Grand Slam doubles titles, Vinci had lost all four of her previous matches to Serena in straights, had never won more than four games a set, and entered the tournament a 300–1 underdog. Two hours later, she walked out of the stadium with a 2–6, 6–4, 6–4 victory, a date with countrywoman Flavia Pennetta in the most unlikely Open final ever, and firm ownership of the greatest upset—male or female—in the Open era.
“I apologized on the air to both Italian women; I said, ‘I didn’t even give you guys a chance,’” Evert said of Vinci and the No. 26 Pennetta, who upset No. 2 Simona Halep, 6–1, 6–3, in the day’s undercard match. “We were all talking about a Serena-Halep final. For both of them to do it? It’s unbelievable. But this is the biggest.”
Consider: Few achievements speak to a great tennis player’s level than winning the year’s first three majors, and the last one to win all four was Steffi Graf in 1988. Only three times before in tennis history had a player holding three been stopped at the last leg: Jack Crawford by Fred Perry in 1933, Lew Hoad by Ken Rosewall in 1956, and Martina Navratilova by Helena Sukova in 1984. Now add Vinci, who has no doubt which upset is the most stunning.
“Today,” she said.
She has a good case. The first three spoilers are Hall of Famers, and Sukova went on to be a top-five singles force and four-time Grand Slam finalist. Navratilova’s broken streak was longer—she had won six straight majors, compared to Serena’s four—but the end came in Melbourne, when the Australian Open was still the calendar year’s final Grand Slam event. Pam Shriver, who won the doubles Grand Slam with Navratilova in ’84, says that Navratilova played as tightly against Sukova in her semifinals loss as Serena did Friday, “but it was nowhere near as big a deal. She was definitely feeling the pressure because the Grand Slam was the ultimate. But this is New York. Melbourne didn’t have the punch this one has—especially if you’re an American.
“On paper, this is absolutely the biggest major upset of all time. But if you look at Serena’s pattern during the year—all the sets lost and all the third sets she had to win—sooner or later it had to catch up with her. Today was the day.”
Indeed, unlike Graf, who lost just two sets en route to winning her Grand Slam, Serena’s 53–2 record in 2015 included two lost sets in Australia, five at Roland Garros, two at Wimbledon—including a comeback from two breaks down in the third against No. 59 Heather Watson. In Flushing Meadows, Serena struggled mightily with Kiki Bertens in the second round, and dropped sets against Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her sister Venus in the quarterfinals. “I told you guys I don’t feel pressure,” she insisted after Friday’s loss. “I never felt pressure. I never felt that pressure to win here.”
Please. With the semifinals delayed a day by rain, her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said that Serena began Friday in a completely darker mood than the day before. “Yesterday she was not like this at all; it was just today,” he said. “But players don’t wake up the same everyday; they’re humans. So today was not a good day, clearly; I saw it the first second I saw her this morning. But how many times did that happen and she found her way through? But she didn’t find it today.”
When it’s on, Vinci’s varied game—rich in spin and short balls, deep and flat forehands, and the kind of deft handiwork at net that can make the most athletic player look clumsy—seems custom-designed to flummox a star used to getting her way. After the first set, Serena lost all flow and rhythm in her feet, and “she lost her way, mentally,” Mouratoglou said. “Tactically she didn’t know what to do.”
It didn’t help, of course, that a Grand Slam hung in the balance. Serena cut short any questions on that score Friday, but her mother, Oracene Price, said after that all the outside pressure, talk of history, and “too many interviews by you guys” finally caught up with her daughter. “Oh, yeah, everybody knows: Yeah,” Price said. “Of course—and then the pressure you put on yourself. Of course.
“She was tight: I’ll muscle it….She was just really tight, just couldn’t muster through it today.”
So in Serena's place now, at least for this weekend, is a player who, though happy enough to “touch the sky with my finger,” also joked about hiding from Serena the next time they cross paths. Vinci knows: She scored some nice victories in Flushing, but her best play was being placed in the draw’s most snakebit quarter. She faced no seeded players before Serena, and her key win may well have been a fourth-round walkover over starlet Eugenie Bouchard, who was forced to withdraw from their match after a freak training room slip left her with a concussion. As it was, Vinci was so sure of losing Friday that she booked a flight home for Saturday.
“I’m 32, almost at the end of my career, and then I make the first U.S. Open final in Grand Slam,” she said. “I didn’t expect this.”
No one did. Not Serena’s mother, who happened to be making her way out of the stadium when she got caught in Vinci’s ebullient wake, who could reach out and touch Vinci when she leapt up and hugged her coach, Francesco Cina, for the first time, who was trying to arrange a quick getaway car just as the elevator doors closed on Vinci while she screamed, “Yes!”
Not the 33-year old Serena, who hustled off the court and through her mandatory interview and out the stadium gates in a sure-record time of 28 minutes—slowing only once to wave at Mouratoglou. Goodbye was the message now, if not to her aura of invincibility than to the base human wish for something rare. Giants fall often, and spoilers come and go: Watch, after Saturday, how quickly Pennetta and Vinci disappear. But a singles Grand Slam has occurred just six times.
“Yeah, sorry,” Vinci said. “She deserved to win. She’s the No. 1. So I was a bit sorry for this because she cannot reach on the Grand Slam.”
She wasn’t being cute. Vinci understands better than most what was lost Friday. It’s likely that tennis won’t see another run like Serena's for a generation.
“I can’t even think how many years it’ll be,” Shriver said. “I cannot see us being in this situation again for a long time. Even with Serena around, because of the chances of something physical coming up. Think how she did in the three majors before she started this last Serena Slam, and how much she struggled just to get to this point. I don’t think we’ll see it for a while.”