was it the enormity of the stage where she was? or was it the huge pressure of making history? or did she underestimate her opponent? these are the questions hovering behind serena williams' surprising loss to roberta vinci in the semifinals of this year's US open.
serena's riding high this year, ripe to match steffi graf's calendar grand slam in 1988 and equalling graf's 22 slams. she of course won this year's first 3 slams – defeating maria sharapova in melbourne, lucie safarova in 3 sets in paris and garbine muguruza in london. she's on 33-match winning streak in slams from last year's US open. she also has won titles in miami and cincinnati this year. she now has won a total of 53 matches and only lost 2 this year (to petra kvitova in madrid and belinda bencic in toronto). in this year's US open, her first round opponent retired, beat kiki bertens in straight sets in the second round, lost the first set but won comfortably against bethanie mattek-sands in the third round, won easily against madison keys in the fourth round and outgunned her sister venus in 3 sets in the quarterfinals.
but against robertavinci in the semis, she seemed flat and not her usual self. she of course won the first set, 6-2, roaring back to take 5 games to close it out. in the second, vinci found her groove, breaking serena's serve for the first time and eventually gutting and winning her first set against serena, 6-4. in the deciding set, serena went ahead, 2-0, but vinci broke back and held at 2-2. the 32-year old from taranto, italy would go on to break serena for an advantage at 4-3 after a fantastic rally and hold to 5-3. serena won the next game, 4-5, and got vinci to serve it out… which she did, dashing the younger williams' hopes of sweeping the 4 majors in the same calendar year. serena produced 16 aces and 50 winners but committed 40 unforced errors. vinci forced serena to commit more than 20 forced errors.
prior to US open 2015, roberta vinci has never been beyond the quarters of any slam. in fact, she lost in the first round of a slam, 23 times. in her 4 previous matches against serena, vinci did not win more than 4 games. but in the semifinal match, vinci was the steadier player, dictating points and not committing a lot of mistakes. she simply refused to commit errors, gamely faced serena and smiled a lot even when serena's serves and winners go past her. even when she loses to flavia pennetta in the finals, she will forever be etched in the history of most stunning upsets.
no calendar slam for serena and tennisdom this year. while williams said that she did not think of the grand slam and records, she of course had her sights on it. after all, she's playing well and dominating the circuit and nobody has ever came close to challenge that. not even sharapova, simona halep or kvitova. she's head and shoulders above the competition and winning the calendar grand slam will truly cement her place in the history as the greatest player ever. had she won the title, she would tie graf's 22 slams and would have ended the debate on who's really the greatest. but it was not to be. certainly, there was a huge pressure on her. everybody expected her to win, including vinci. vinci played well to win the match of her life but serena's been in these kinds of situation many times before and pulled through, even snatching wins when she really was down and not playing well. as rennae stubbs said, she's one of the greatest competitors ever and hates losing.
so what really swamped serena's chances of completing the slam? it was the combination of immense pressure, looking way ahead and most probably, not taking vinci seriously. in her career, serena always had problems with lowly, unflashy players who seemed to not have any power to bang away with her. think of emilie loit, alina jidkova, tiantian sun and monica niculescu. she lost to unknown and lower-ranked players such as garbine muguruza, alize cornet, jana cepelova and virginie razzano. with roberta vinci, she seemed to be telling herself that "you cannot lose to this player" or "you're so much better than her", thought of which confounded her as the match went on, vinci not folding back and continuing to play well, win her service games and breaking serena's serve once more. serena's frustration resulted to her becoming tentative, slower to react and seemingly not anticipating well. errors came rushing in and in no time, she was out of the tournament. as many pundits say, that's sport for you. even the greatest champions get perplexed and run out of ways to pull off a win sometimes, especially when you take your challenger too lightly.
i'm a fan of serena williams. she's one of the greatest players ever to play the sport. she's brought in great difference and with her talent, skills and personality, put tennis at a higher level as a whole. she probably would equal graf's 22 slams next year or even margaret court's 24 in the next few years. but the calendar grand slam is not hers. i would like to see another player achieve that… a more gracious and sportswoman who would not use steely stares to intimidate opponents and only let her racket do the talking.