US Open: History Wins as Serena Fails to Crack the Roberta Vinci Code

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1972

By Bill Simons

The quest – so grand and noble – is over.

Long live the quest.

Never before had there been a tennis journey like this. The greatest player of all time, the singular Serena, vs. history.

And history had been kind. Eleven times this year Serena had shown her nerve and fight and prevailed in three-set Grand Slam battles. What will, what grit.

And she had help. Here at the US Open, tennis had seemed to tee it up for her. Maria Sharapova had withdrawn. Her toughest foes – Azarenka, Kvitova and Halep – had all withered with little fight.

Once, when Serena Williams was hitting from too far back at the Australian Open and she was standing on the ‘Melbourne’ sign, her mom yelled, “Get out of Melbourne.”

Now, at the Open, all Serena had to do was get out of Italy. She had never lost to either the unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci or the veteran journeywoman Flavia Pennetta, who awaited in the final.

But Serena is more into France than Italy. She has a French coach, a Paris apartment and speaks lovely French. Today, she didn’t get out of Italy. She barely got on the boat. 

She could not crack the Roberta Vinci code. And, at 2:58 p.m. when Vinci hit yet another delicate-as-snow half-volley winner to prevail 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, the vise grip of history finally squeezed tight – unkind, unsparing.

The mighty Serena – uptight, ponderous, nervous, slow-moving – struck out.  She had few answers. Somewhere in Las Vegas perhaps a little smile came to the face of a woman named Steffi. Graf’s Open Era record of 22 majors would still stand unblemished. That mighty mountain they call the Grand Slam – which had been won by Maureen Connolly in 1953, by Margaret Court in 1970, and by Graf in 1988 – once again would not be summited.

Serena blinked, history prevailed, conspirators whispered.

After all, this was September 11th, they claimed. Here on this date sixteen years ago, Serena – squealing in delight – won her first Slam. On September 11th just four years ago she had her last major meltdown when she called out “C’mon!” against Sam Stosur and was called for hindrance.

But today was not about conspiracies, unless you count the clever game plan concocted by Vinci’s camp.

The Italian broke early in the first set. “Here we go again,” said a voice in the press room, “more drama.” But not to worry, Serena stepped up and stepped all over Vinci’s serve. She attacked freely, seemed worry-free and won five straight games to capture the first set, 6-2.

In the interview room Penneta, Vinci’s fellow Italian, cautioned “Not so fast, the match isn’t over.” 

But, no worries. Serena’s march to history was coated in a certain (“this has just got to happen”) inevitability. She was No. 1. Vinci was No. 43. Serena had never lost to Vinci in four meetings, including a match a month ago in Toronto. She had a home court advantage. She would prevail. TV execs were thrilled. The ratings of Serena’s final would soar through the roof.  

But somehow Serena’s game hit the ceiling. From the first ball, her coach Patrick Mouratoglou sensed something was wrong, this was not her day. She was not moving and never did crack the considerable Vinci code: sublime easy movement, an unafraid return of serve which blunted Serena’s power, nasty drop shots, not-to-worry defensive lobs and a high-to-low one-handed backhand that is suggestive of Graf’s.

She volleyed well and hit deep down the middle. And Serena’s level dropped dearly. At crunch time she didn’t go out and grab history and could not defy Vinci’s crafty-sure play. Lunging and flustered, she seemed miserable. In the second set she suffered an error-strewn fifth game. That’s all the Italian needed, as she raced to a 6-4 win to even the match.

Serena slammed her racket. What’s going on? Who is this pretender? Before the Open, Vinci’s chances of winning were put at 300:1. She was a 12:1 underdog today. So Serena, who had an 11-0 record in the third set of Slams this year, quickly broke serve in the final set. Vinci didn’t care. She knew Serena was nervous and she broke right back. Williams stopped hitting out. Her serve wavered. Her movement faltered. When Vinci won a glorious scramble point to draw Serena back to deuce in the seventh game of the third set, she pointed to her ear and flashed a joyous, vein-popping expression of delight and triumph. “The crowd was for her,” Vinci recalled. “And, I say, come on one time for me.”

Vinci’s veteran bravado and (“I’m Italian and you’re not”) swagger seemed to tell Serena, “I’m here, in-your-face, I’m not going away.”

Williams promptly donated a backhand and forehand, allowing Vinci to score a critical break to go up 4-3.

Suddenly history seemed gray.

Williams’ friends box was glum. Billie Jean King was nervous. Vinci was playing the match of her career. Still, she admitted she was “a little bit scare. My arms was like (shaking)…But in my mind, I say, ‘Don’t think about this, because you have more pressure. Stay calm, relax, and breathe during every single points. Don’t think that you have Serena on the other side of the court. Try to enjoy.'” She told the crowd, “Put the ball in play and keep the ball in play in the court and run and then I won.”

Vinci had already booked a flight to go back to Italy. But now her 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 win – one of the greatest clutch upsets in woman’s tennis history – left her giddy and giggly.

As she sashayed into the first-ever all-Italian women’s Slam final, she sheepishly apologized to Serena and to the crowd for raining on the American parade. But, Roberta, winning means not having to say your sorry.

This was the best moment of her life.

“I can maybe touch the sky with my finger,” she told IT.

On this strange day, Serena ultimately could not touch Roberta. Today her code – the Vinci code – remained unbroken.

Billie Jean King told IT, “If I were Serena…before I got to the locker room today…I would have said, ‘Next year I’m going to win all four [slams], non-negotiable’…I’d get so cheesed. I’d be so, just like, “Gimme the ball. Let’s go. I’m ready.”

But Serena was so not ready.

Despondent and emotionally drained, she desperately needed a break. After the match she was in a deep, unhappy funk – terse and glum. Never mind all her triumphs this year. On this day, the mighty Serena had tried mightily to alter history, but history won.