Serena's Quest Derailed in Shocking Upset

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NEW YORK - Line up the cliche​s: anything can happen on a given day; that’s why we play the game; it’s not over till it’s over; and, finally, sh*t happens.

In a stunning upset that will go down as one of the great shockers in US Open, tennis and sports history, Roberta Vinci stunned prohibitive favorite Serena Williams on a windy Friday afternoon in New York. The finally tally was 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

The hype and expectation over S​erena accomplishing that rarest of feats - the calendar year Grand Slam - were swept away by the gusts that circled around Arthur Ashe Stadium. There was much talk before the Open commenced about how the women’s final sold out before the men’s for the first time in history. Now it’ll be interesting to see if the stadium is even two-thirds full on Saturday to watch two little-known Italians vie for the title (Flavia Pennetta won earlier in the day, also in an upset, as she upended second-seeded Simona Halep).

Vinci played a nearly perfect match tactically. She utilized her superb slice to precision and mixed up pace often. and also had her drop shot working well; though this tactic didn’t always win her points, it allowed Vinci to inflict the slightest bit of doubt and confusion into Serena’s mind.

What was most surprising about the outcome and the manner in which the match played out, was the fact that Serena’s serve percentage was excellent. She was able to land 65 percent of her first offerings into play and recorded 18 aces to only four double faults. And when she serves a strong percentage of first serve she almost always wins. What did her in Friday though was the return.

Serena usually feasts on second serves. But on Friday afternoon she was able to win only 49 percent of the points on Vinci’s second serves. While wind may have been a factor, the more likely reason for Serena’s return woes is that she didn’t vary her return stance as she usually does. This allowed Vinci to get comfortable in far too many games, which allowed the Italian to gain confidence as the match wore on.

Another likely culprit on this day may have been nerves. Although Serena, to her credit, gave all due to Vinci’s superb play, the fact remains that S​erena has been on the edge of defeat countless times during her extraordinary Grand Slam run in 2015. And Friday she wasn’t able to dig herself out of it as she had been able to against her sister Venus earlier this week and also against Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the third round.

When trying to come up with an analogy for this stunning loss, my first thought was Arthur Ashe’s 1975 Wimbledon triumph over his on- and off-court riival Jimmy Connors. As has been famously recounted numerous times, Ashe stunned Connors with a slice and dice approach to victory, abandoning his usual power game in an effort to disrupt and annoy Connors. But in that instance, Ashe, though well beyond his prime, was a prior Slam winner​.

Additionally , S​erena knew going in how Vinci would play. She knew that Vinci would attempt to disrupt her rhythm​ and find ways to move Serena around the court. This is another aspect to the match that is unprecedented, at least in terms of Serena’s recent performances; she was simply out-thought, out-strategized and generallyy outplayed on this day. There would be no readjus​tments or emotionally galvan​izng points that would carry her to victory. Shockingly the match ended in a love service game for Vinci, as if Serena had nothing left.

After the loss Serena, to her credit as she’s not always the most magnaminous in defeat, gave total credit to Vinci stating, “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. So that's good for her to keep going for it and playing so well. Actually, I guess it's inspiring. But, yeah, I think she played literally out of her mind. I don't think I played that bad. 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. Neither did I, incidentally. But she really didn't either.”

The outcome, while hugely disappointing to the USTA and tennis fans and, most especially ESPN, it serves as an acute object lesson that, to return to the beginning, anything can happen. And this is a good thing.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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