NEW YORK – The peerless Serena Williams had only one real opponent in her pursuit of a historic Grand Slam: her own nervous system. The opponent won. Her riveting quest for a rare calendar sweep of the tennis major championships ended in the semifinals of the U.S. Open with a three-set loss to a slight, unseeded Italian named Roberta Vinci, who played a brilliant strategic match calculated to do just one thing: make Williams beat herself.
Usually when Williams’ voice goes guttural and she begins screaming with competitive wrath, her adversaries move out of the way. But on the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium, in a roar-filled contest of steadily mounting pressure with close-packed bleachers rising around them like cliffs, Vinci met Williams’ power tennis with pure craft. She robbed Williams of her primary weapon, force, and instead engaged her in an off-speed contest of skimming slices, lobs and drops. In the final game of the match, with a combination of touch and pure gall, Vinci laid down a pair of irretrievably soft, half-volley winners that dropped on Williams’ side of the net like tombstones. The result was a scarcely believable victory, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, and an upset of historical proportions.
“She literally played out of her mind,” Williams said.
“I feel good right now,” Vinci said. “I can maybe touch the sky with my finger.”
The loss ended one of the great runs in tennis history just two matches shy of the final goal. Williams had won 33 Grand Slam matches in a row entering the semifinal. She was seeking to become just the fourth woman ever, and the first since in 27 years, to collect all four major trophies in the same season. She had won the Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon in order with formidable displays of mental fortitude and brawn, aided by a serve that at times reached 125 miles per hour and bailed her out of tough spots.
“I don’t want to talk about how disappointing it is for me,” Williams said tightly. “If you have any other questions, I’m open for that.”
The main question was, what happened? The answer partly was that Williams was too heavy a favorite; all who predicted an easy victory failed to appreciate the pressures, why Slams are so rare. Williams had fought through no fewer than 11 three-set matches to get to this point in her pursuit of the four titles. Hall of Famer and announcer Chris Evert observed that it was a case of, “Flirting with disaster too many times. This time she couldn’t dig herself out of a hole, couldn’t find the next gear.”
But it’s also true that at some point in the semifinal, Vinci underwent a metamorphosis. She began the match as the longest of shots. She was appearing in the first grand slam semifinal of her entire journeywoman career at the age of 33. She had never taken so much as a set from Williams in four previous meetings. But Vinci withstood a hail of lashed winners from Williams, 50 in all, as well as wildly partisan noises from the crowd of 22,825, without folding. She kept poking the ball back with a soft-handed assortment of cut shots. She would not slink away, and in the final set, she was an assertive player who demanded to be beaten, not just outlasted.
“Today is my day,” she said afterward. “Sorry, guys.”
Williams came out clearly flat and uptight, which made her seem heavy-footed. She was forced to generate her own pace against Vinci’s off-speed tactics, and it wore on her patience at times as she scalloped and scooped the ball rather than hitting it with her usual wallop. To go with those 50 winners, she committed 40 unforced errors.
The Italian won the second set by extending rallies and making Williams play one more ball than she wanted to. Williams broke a racket in vexation. In the third, Williams became indecisive, while Vinci became increasingly aggressive, finishing points with stealthy, effective volley advances.
By 3-3 in the third set, the pressure was clearly telling on Williams. When Williams made consecutive double faults on her serve, Vinci knew that she was feeling the nerves. “A lot,” she said.
“On my mind I say, ‘Think about this,'” Vinci said. “‘She’s nervous. So try to keep it and fight every point.'”
A furious 126-mph blast of a serve gave Williams a game point. But Vinci somehow forced deuce with the most spectacular rally of the match. She forced Williams crosscourt with a wickedly low skidding forehand. William retrieved it with a desperate rolling backhand cross — but Vinci darted to the net, and picked the ball off with a punched forehand volley into open court. As roars erupted, Vinci put a hand to her ear, and then pounded her chest and motioned to the crowd summoning even higher decibels, shouting, “For me! For me!” It was the pivotal moment of the match.
Williams then committed two straight errors to relinquish the fatal break of serve, jamming a first ball backhand in the net, and then slashing a forehand deep. Vinci had a 4-3 lead and never trailed again. Serving for the match, she got to 30-0 with a nimble two-handed stab backhand volley that she called “a little lucky.” Williams bent double, and laid her head on her racket handle. Williams then put herself in a triple match-point hole when she anxiously rushed a high backhand volley and netted it.
Vinci closed out the match with another deadly little half-volley, this one a feathery touch forehand. Vinci dropped her racket and raised her hands in the air, and then clapped her hands over her eyes in disbelief. “It’s a magic moment for me,” said.
Williams calmly shook hands and then hurried off the court, head down, ducking to the tunnel with a cursory wave to appreciative applause. Afterward, she was composed but frozen-faced, save for flashes of warring emotions. Pride over a spectacular season, bile at the upset, and irritability at questions that could hardly get at what she was really feeling. And that in truth, only a very select group of players could possibly understand. The only three women ever to complete the sweep remain Maureen Connolly Brinker of the United States in 1953, Margaret Court of Australia in 1970, and Steffi Graf of Germany in 1988.
“I don’t think I played that bad,” Williams said. “I made more unforced errors than I normally would make, but I think she just played really well. She did not want to lose today.”
She paused, and then added. “Neither did I, incidentally. But she really didn’t either.”
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at email@example.com