When you talk about history’s greatest upsets, most sports fans point to the Mount Rushmore of underdogs – The U.S. Men’s Hockey Team’s “Miracle on Ice” beating the Russians at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson for the Heavyweight Championship of the World in 1990. Villanova beating Georgetown for the 1985 NCAA Championship. And Joe Namath’s brash New York Jets beating the legendary Colts in Super Bowl III in 1969. After last Fridays women’s semi-final at the U.S. Open, they may have to carve out some room for Italy’s Roberta Vinci.
Coming into this year’s U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, there was one question and one story everyone was talking about – could American Serena Williams win the U.S. Open and complete the calendar Gram Slam (holding all four Major titles – The Australian Open, The French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open – at the same time)? Serena had already won the last four Grand Slam tournaments in row. She just hadn’t accomplished it in a single calendar year. With a win, she would become the first person to pull off the calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf did it in 1988 and only the sixth person to do it in the history of tennis behind Graf, Margaret Court in 1970, Rod Laver in 1969 and 1962, Maureen Connolly in 1953 and Don Budge, the first to complete the Grand Slam, in 1938.
Two weeks ago, conventional consensus wasn’t whether Serena would win the title, but how. Who would she have to play? How many sets would she lose on the way to the title? Would the draw take her through an emotional match with her sister Venus in the Quarters? Serena Williams has been the most dominant female tennis player in the world for the past 15 years winning 21 Grand Slam tournaments (just one shy of Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 and three short of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24). To put that in perspective, Roger Federer, considered to be the greatest male tennis player ever, holds the men’s record with 17 Grand Slam victories.
Coming into Flushing Meadows, Serena had won the first three Majors of the year, had compiled a record of 49-2 and was the overwhelming favorite to win the Open. In fact, people were so sure she’d win, for the first time in history, tickets for the women’s final sold out before the men’s. Nobody was going to beat Serena.
But that’s why they play the matches.
On Friday afternoon, a 300 to 1 underdog – a petite, Italian named Roberta Vinci – the world’s 43rd ranked singles player – a seemingly frail woman with a weak serve and a decent slice backhand – came to Arthur Ashe Stadium to play the number one player in the world in front of 20,000 screaming fans (19,994 of whom were there to be part of Serena’s coronation). Serena Williams had WON 25 Grand Slam semi-final matches. This was Roberta Vinci’s first Grand Slam semi EVER. So it would be understandable for her to play nervous. Which she did, dropping the first set 2-6.
Earlier in the day, Romanian Simona Halep, the Open’s number two seed, had been blown off the court by Italian Flavia Pennetta in straight sets, 6-1, 6-3. As it turns out, Pennetta and Vinci are lifelong friends who have trained together, lived together and played together for their entire careers. And as Serena and Roberta made the turn for set number two, somehow Vinci got a jolt of the magic Pennetta had harnessed earlier and just started hitting out without a care in the world. Before she knew it, she has evened the match at a set apiece and when she broke Serena to go up 4-3 in the third, the upset was there for the taking. But she’d still have to hold her serve. Twice. At the U.S. Open. Against the most dominant player in women’s tennis playing an unseeded woman with a weak serve with the Grand Slam on the line.
She did. And in the final game, Vinci held her serve at Love. Not bad.
There have been a number of incredible upsets in tennis over the years. In 1985, an unseeded 17-year-old Boris Becker literally came from nowhere to win the first of his three Wimbledon titles. In 2009, 48-1 underdog Robin Solderling snapped Rafael Nadal’s 31-match winning streak at the French Open, beating him in four grueling sets. You could throw in Billie Jean King whipping Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome just for fun. But Roberta Vinci’s upset of Serena Williams on Friday was historic. As big as Buster Douglas. As unexpected as Appalachian State upsetting Michigan in the Big House eight years ago. It was the greatest moment of her life. She said so in the post-match interview.
On Saturday afternoon, after the biggest wins of their careers, the two underdog Italians faced off for the U.S. Open Women’s Championship. And in a somewhat quiet match, Flavia Pennetta defeated her good friend and countrywoman Roberta Vinci 7-6, 6-2 to win the first and only Grand Slam title of her career. At 33, she is the oldest first time Major winner in tennis history and after the match, she hugged her friend, kissed the U.S. Open trophy and promptly announced her retirement from competitive tennis. It was a special, beautiful, fantastic moment. It was the epitome of going out on top. And the second best underdog story of the past two days.