Friday, January 28, 2022

Soul of the US Open: Serena Williams Stumbles Just Steps from Tennis Pinnacle

*Flushing, NY – Serena Williams was just one match away from reaching the rare pinnacle of tennis: holding the coveted Calendar Slam. She would also have won her 22nd major, equaling the number of Slams held by tennis legend Steffi Graf.

Destiny seemed to have cleared the way for the defending champion to achieve the feat, with unexpected quarterfinal losses derailing the hopes of her most threatening competitors, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova, from spoiling her party. She won six challenging matches getting as close to the finish line as she did, shutting out three capable Americans, Bethanie Matteks-Sands, Madison Keys and her surging sister Venus Williams along the way. But as destiny-turned to fate would have it, she ended up facing Roberta Vinci, a slicing and dicing Italian that she had owned up to that point, and that’s where the “destiny” train derailed.

In hindsight maybe it was an omen, but there was what seemed to be one last bit of opposition, not from a player, but from Mother Nature as rain caused the rescheduling of the women’s semis from Thursday night to Friday. But as we’ve seen in her career to date, once the 33-year-old who “hates to lose” makes it as deep as she did in this tournament – especially a Grand Slam, she’s virtually unstoppable; Her record in semifinals is an astounding 25-3 and 21-4 in finals. So it didn’t seem likely that a delayed match would make any difference.

But whereas the weather didn’t, unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci did.

Vinci’s quirky style of play took away the consistency of the hopeful world no. 1’s game and that coupled with the weight of living up to her own and everyone else’s lofty expectations – which she adamantly denies, led to a devastating loss, 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, that will reverberate for many, many years to come. It’s a Tennis Channel “most stunning upsets” documentary waiting to happen.

Vinci’s win enabled her to join her Italian compatriot, Flavia Pennetta, in the first ever all-Italian women’s final of the U.S. Open. And Pennetta always plays well at the U.S. open for some reason, but not Vinci.

serena & vinci
Serena Williams & Roberta Vinci

So, what happened? How exactly did the Italian – with sure newfound fame – upend one of the greatest tennis players to ever live at such a critical moment?

The first set started out pretty routine, although there were signs of tightness from Serena in that she seemed sluggish and to be holding back on power. But being who she is, she was still able to take the set, 6-2, with her B game. A little aura goes a long way, especially on the biggest of stages.

But mildly alarming was the absence of her signature fire when she’s playing. There were few if any c’mons to that point and she lacked urgency. Maybe too much cruise control due to the low caliber of her opponent? She hadn’t set out to approach the match that way:

“I played her in Canada and she played me really tough,” she said. “So I’m not gonna underestimate her, because she played really well and she’s not in the semifinals of a grand slam for no reason, so she knows what to do and what to play.”

She went on to say she’d “be ready for her,” but …

She started the second set well enough, reaching 2-all and on serve, but her sufficient-to-that-point lackadaisical play finally caught up to her. She was broken after Vinci got got back four good returns causing unforced errors, giving Vinci the 4-2 lead … and she never recovered that break. She had slim chances in the next game, two break point to pull even, but wasn’t focused enough to capitalize. She went on to drop the set 4-6 when Vinci held by forcing two backhand errors off a down the line serve and an effective approach shot.

But toward the end of that second set some of Serena’s fire began to flair up indicating a possible third set blitz, which Serena is known for. She even busted a racquet and got a warning.

But the writing was already on the wall as the commentators were pondering, “how many times can she live on the third set edge and win …?

Vinci had the answer.

The third set started with Serena forcing a break to go up 2-0, but unforced errors and a double fault in her next service game gave the feisty Italian the break right back. She said “thank you ma’am” then held for 2-all.

But the real turning point in the third was when the Italian weathered one of Serena’s run-every-ball-down storms and won a long rally with a backhand winner that was out of reach for Williams. She hoisted her arms to fan the flames of the cheering fans and at that moment got many of them on her side. She got a break of her own in that very game and her level of believe began to rise.

At the changeover a frazzled Serena removed excessive wrapping from her ankles so could get have the freedom of movement to go to war. Vinci up now, 4-3, Serena made a small dent in her service game – forcing two rare breakpoints, but it just wasn’t enough; the finish line was in sight for the unseeded Italian and she erased them and held for 5-3. Serena gave one last gasp, easily holding in her next game with 2 of 16 aces she served during the match, but a gasp it was. Vinci was then serving for the match, brimming with confidence and with a fully pressurized Serena on the other side of the net. She easily held and there went up into the New York sky Serena Williams dream of winning her first Calendar Grand Slam and matching Graf in doing so.

Serena doesn’t handle losing well and who knows what impact this unprecedented loss will have on her future in the sport. But if her painful and short post-match presser is any indication, there will be some kind of fallout.

Did she want it too much? I’d say she did … and I’d go on to say she may have faltered by trying to convince herself and others that she didn’t:

“No!” She snapped when asked if there was a lot of pressure after the match. “I told you guys I don’t feel pressure. I never felt pressure. I never felt pressure to win here. I said that from the beginning.”

Could be true, but you have to attribute her uncharacteristically erratic play all season – mainly against much lesser opponents – to something, don’t you?

She said of Vinci:

“I thought she played the best tennis in her career. You know, she’s 33 and, you know, she’s going for it at a late age. Actually, I guess it’s inspiring. But, yeah, I think she played literally out of her mind. She did not want to lose today.”

After that, the dejected 6-time U.S Open winner and world no. 1 cut short the presser, headed toward her waiting car and was out … that’s her way when she loses.

I understand her pain, but she’ll just have to settle for her twice-achieved “Serena Slam,” I guess.

Whatever happens next, what Serena Williams has achieved in women’s tennis over the span of her long career is still – somewhat debatably for those who see it as such – unparalleled. It hasn’t been packaged and presented that way that often, but the money she’s earned, the records she holds, the adversity she’s overcome en route to being just shy of the “pinnacle” have all made her essentially one of the greatest American athletes, man or woman to have ever lived.

This loss will sting and will even be a glaring blemish – in the way of upsets – on her career for a long time to come, but if kept in proper perspective, it shouldn’t trump a “bad ass” career overall … And no matter what she’ll remain world no. 1 for a while and will $805k richer (semi payout).

Steffi Graf, as you were … your record remains intact.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Maaaaaaan this was a hard pill to swallow. But baby was seemingly exhausted in that interview a day earlier! Maybe she was just too fkn tired to do the damn thang. ? But I predict the next time she meets up with ole girl?, she g’on MURder that ass….”6-2, 6-0″! Anyway….”I” may be the only one “unconditionally” posting?, but errybawdy knows that….though you lost “this” one?, YOU’re STILL THE QUEEN!!! AND NO.1!!!!

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