WATCH—Stories of the Open Era - Billie Jean King:
Flushing Meadows is tennis’ largest stage, and over the last 50 years, it has been the site of some of the sport’s greatest dramas. This week, we'll count down the 10 most memorable US Open matches of the Open Era. To follow the countdown, click here.
A few minutes after Roberta Vinci pulled off the biggest upset of 2015—and, according to some, the biggest upset of any year—she was asked if she had believed, when she woke up that morning, whether she had any chance of winning. Vinci didn’t hesitate with her answer.
“No!” the Italian cried as she wiggled her head back and forth.
How about after she had pushed Serena to a third set?
“Never,” Vinci said with a laugh.
What about when she broke Serena at 3-3 in the third and served for the match at 5-4?
“When I serve,” said Vinci, pretending to shake all over, “I think, ‘It’s impossible.’”
The night before, the world No. 43 had even gone so far as to call her travel agent and say, “‘OK, book me a flight, because, you know...”
So how did, at age 32 and playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal, this 132-pound woman win a match in which she was a 300-1 underdog? How did she beat an opponent who was 26-0 at major tournaments that year, and just two matches from completing the first calendar-year Grand Slam since Steffi Graf’s in 1988? How did this unsung player produce a win, as well as a post-match interview, that no one will ever forget?
Vince played well, of course. “The best match of my life,” she called it. When it was over, she pointed upward and said, “I can maybe touch the sky with my finger.”
More important was the fact that Vinci played her game, one that was learned way back in the 20th century, when net-rushers with one-handers still roamed the land.
“She has that mean slice backhand,” Serena had said beforehand. Vinci kept mixing that soft slice with her hard flat forehand, and it was enough to keep Serena from swinging freely.
If there was a shot that typified Serena’s day, it came when she reached break point at 3-4 in the second set, and had a look at a wide-open forehand pass on the run. All year, Serena had faced turning points like that; all year she had made them turn her way.
This one turned against her: After getting her feet tangled up as she ran toward the net, Serena shanked the ball wide, and Vinci held. After winning 26 straight matches at the Slams, she fell two games short in the 27th. Two games short, but not two points—Serena actually won 93 points in this match to Vinci’s 85.
“I did win three Grand Slams this year,” Serena said afterward, in a somber attempt to put the loss in perspective.
The reason Vinci did what no other woman could in 2015 wasn’t because she sliced her backhand or flattened out her forehand. She won because she had the guts and the game to close it out. Serving at 5-4, shaking like a leaf and still believing it was “impossible,” Vinci carved under a gorgeous slice approach and followed it with a half-volley winner. On match point, she moved Serena across the baseline and seemed to have the rally won with a forehand. But Serena being Serena, she stretched herself out and forced Vinci to make one more ball. Vinci did.
When the impossible had finally happened, Vinci was asked for her reaction.
She dragged her finger across her forehand and let out a long “Whhhhheeeeeewwwww” of relief.
When it came to beating Serena in 2015, only seeing was believing.
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