September 11, 2015
They were supposed to be the bridesmaids. Now one of them is about to be crowned US Open champion. Italian tennis has never seen a day quite like this. Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci played with a complete lack of inhibition and their reward is a climax no one saw coming – an all-Italian final.
When Vinci was told she had been a 300-1 shot to beat Serena Williams, she turned disbelievingly to her team and said, ‘Did you hear that? They exaggerated! I won!’ And she did it in style, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. It was some comeback and one of the great sporting upsets in recent memory.
Williams is American but the Flushing Meadows crowd cheered every word Vinci uttered after her extraordinary victory. They knew they had just witnessed one of the most dramatic semi-finals in US Open history, ranking alongside Justine Henin’s amazing win over another home favourite, Jennifer Capriati.
After one key point in the final set, during which Vinci fought like a lioness to resist Serena and finally triumphed at the end of a marathon rally, the diminutive Italian raised her arms to the skies and implored the vast crowd to appreciate her. How they responded and how she adored every moment of their praise.
And that’s why she won. Whereas she was having a ball, Serena wasn’t enjoying herself at all, she was simply trying to fulfill expectation and serve a statistic, in order to achieve the first Calendar Slam since Steffi Graf’s success in 1988.
‘I didn’t feel pressure,’ insisted Serena to an incredulous audience. ‘I never felt pressure, I didn’t feel pressure to win here.’
But you couldn’t help feeling that, by refusing to acknowledge the pressure, she had failed to deal with it. We had all suggested that Williams needed to stay in the moment, focus on the present, and let it take her all the way to glory. Easier said than done, apparently. That was the way to handle the pressure, though; and if you pretend there is no pressure then you can’t handle it, you can’t stick to a game plan that will keep you the right side of it.
Williams admitted only this: ‘I played a couple of tight shots, maybe two, but I don’t think I played badly. She [Vinci] has gone for it at the age of 33, she has literally played out of her mind.’
At times Serena looked as though she was scared out of her mind, crushed by the weight on her shoulders, unable to unleash her true power.
On Vinci there was no pressure. She looked into Serena’s eyes and read the concern there. In that moment Roberta had cracked Serena’s code. She made full use of her opponent’s nerves, she turned on her own deceptive power and never wavered.
‘It’s the best moment of my life,’ Vinci said delightedly.
And her compatriot, Flavia Pennetta, must be feeling the same way after her amazing 6-1, 6-3 victory over number two seed Simona Halep. Pennetta’s victory could be summed up in one word – depth.
She hit so deeply and with such conviction that Halep was always on the back foot in a match she too was fully expected to win.
The Romanian had been playing much better since her disappointing early exit at Wimbledon. It seemed probable she would be first into the final in New York, then able to rest up before the big battle against Williams. Pennetta hadn’t read the script, however.
And perhaps Serena had also become a little complacent after taking the first set against Vinci with such ease. Had she tried to save energy for the final, had she taken her foot off the gas? She may have looked ahead. Always fatal in sport.
Whatever the reason, the Calendar Slam slipped away unforgivingly, and glory will now go to one of the truly fearless Italians.
Mamma mia, what a day.