The Vinci Code

The underdog collided with history, and the underdog prevailed

AP Photo

NEW YORK – There are two themes that we Americans, almost unanimously, love in our sports. One is the underdog. The other is history. The two themes cracked forehands and backhands at each other from opposite sides of the net on Friday at Arthur Ashe Stadium. And the back-and-forth left the New York crowd breathless and empty and a little bit bewildered.

The history theme was supposed to be the only one. Serena Williams came into the U.S. Open semifinal Friday just two victories away from the first tennis Grand Slam in more than a quarter-century. She had already won a couple of Serena Slams – when she won the U.S. Open, Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon in succession – but she had never managed to squeeze all four into a single calendar year. Maybe these are just semantics, but there’s something familiar and famed about the Grand Slam. It seemed a fitting crescendo for the awesome career of Serena Williams.

The underdog, well, no one was quite sure how Italian Roberta Vinci had even reached a grand slam semifinal. She had never done that before, not in her relatively long career that included 23 first-round losses in the 43 Grand Slam tournaments she played. She’s 32 now, a longtime doubles specialist, and she got through to this semifinal in part because Eugenie Bouchard suffered a concussion before their match, and in part because the rest of the draw opened up for her – she did not have to beat a seeded player.

Vegas set the odds of Roberta Vinci winning the U.S. Open at 300-to-1, quite a bit higher than the odds set for the Jacksonville Jaguars winning the Super Bowl or Ben Carson being the next president of the United States. It’s unlikely that Vegas got any action on her. Williams and Vinci had played four times; Serena had won all eight sets easily.

Everyone came for the history. The crowd cheered happily as Williams sliced through Vinci 6-2 in a blazingly fast first set. Williams treated Vinci’s serve with disdain – she won 73 percent of Vinci’s second serves, many of those with clean winners on the return. This looked like it would be impossibly easy. Serena Williams had often told curious reporters, “I don’t feel pressure.” It looked that way. A finals matchup against Flavia Pennetta, another Italian thirty-something playing the tournament of her life, seemed only moments away. Pennetta seemed no more likely than Vinci to pierce through Williams invincibility; Serena had beaten her all seven times they had played.

And now, we get to the baffling part. Williams began to miss some shots, and Vinci played inspired tennis. Vinci had told herself before the match, “Get the ball into the court. Forget that’s Serena on the other side. Get the ball into the court. Forget that’s Serena on the other side.” Vinci’s strengths are in her movement and her sense of the court – gifts she acquired through many years of successful doubles play. She chased down Williams’ shots, outflanked her in the longer rallies, gratefully accepted Williams’ mistakes and won the second set. Vinci pumped her fist in triumph. Williams broke her racket in frustration.

But this did not really convince anyone that Vinci actually had a chance to win. Williams has a habit of, as tennis people say, going walkabout, meaning that her level inexplicably drops. But it’s usually a temporary thing. In the quarterfinal against her sister Venus, Serena played a dismal second set before gathering herself and dominating the third. There was no doubt in Arthur Ashe Stadium that we were about to see the same thing, and Williams promptly broke Vinci’s serve to prove the point.

The greatest upsets keep you riveted to the very last moment. In Sydney, 2000, a seemingly invincible (and three-time gold medal winning) Russian wrestler named Aleksandr Karelin faced Rulon Gardner, the son of a Wyoming dairy farmer, in the final. It seemed like nothing more than a coronation until the very last second when Karelin hung his head and reached out his hand in defeat.

In Lake Placid, 1980, a seemingly invincible Soviet hockey team fired shot after shot at American goalie Jim Craig in a desperate effort to tie the game and end the madness. And it wasn’t until the last five seconds, when the puck was cleared and Al Michaels found time to shout, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” that anyone understood that it was real.

And Friday afternoon, even when Vinci somehow broke back against Serena’s serve, it all still seemed impossible, even to Vinci. And then, with Serena serving at 3-3, something happened. You can call it “The Turning Point,” with capital letters.

How to describe “The Turning Point?” It was an 18-shot piece of art. Twelve shots in, Williams hit a short crosscourt forehand that pulled Vinci way off the court. Vinci chased it down – she chased down everything all day – and hit a forehand deep. Williams, perhaps surprised to see the ball come back, barely chased it down and flicked a backhand into the open court, a second potential winner. But Vinci raced back in and, with the crowd now delirious, knifed a wicked backhand slice down the line. Williams cracked a forehand in a desperate attempt to make the pass, but Vinci was there to hit a beautiful touch volley. Williams came running in, but she was too late. The point was over.

And in the moment, Vinci raised her arms to the fans and waved. Then she pointed to herself. “Me!” she shouted. The crowd had, up to that moment, been lost in the history. Now, with one point, they suddenly saw the underdog. “Of course, all the crowd was for her,” Vinci would say about about the moment. “And I say, ‘Come on! One time for me!’”

Vinci broke Williams to take a 4-3 lead. Now, the upset was right in front of us. Vinci felt it. “My arms were like …” she would say and she then shook her arms around uncontrollably. When people laughed, she shook her head. “No,” she said. “I’m not joking.”

Williams undoubtedly felt it too, though she would not acknowledge it. “I made a couple of tight points,” she said. “But maybe just two. … Other than that I don’t think I was that tight.”

Vinci and the crowd sensed something different. “I thought she was nervous,” Vinci said. Williams had three double faults in the set (two in one game) and she committed 19 unforced errors. In the final game, with Vinci up 5-4 and serving, Williams hit a backhand return into the net and then missed a very makeable backhand volley. Vinci finished it off with two soft half-volleys, and then it was over. Vinci had pulled off one of the most remarkable upsets in grand slam tennis history.

“I’m sorry,” Vinci told the crowd. She meant for breaking up the Grand Slam, but the crowd at that point would have none of it. The history was over. They had their underdog.

“What gave you the belief that you could do this?” she was asked on the court.

“No,” Vinci said simply, and everyone roared happily. Vinci was not joking; she had not believed. She had booked a flight out of New York for Saturday. Instead, she will play Flavia Pennetta in an all-Italian final. Perhaps belief is overrated.

“I thought she played the best tennis of her career,” Williams said afterward. “You know, she’s 33 [sic] and, you know … I guess it’s inspiring. But, yeah, I think she played literally out of her mind.”

Well, not literally, but anyway this was about all Williams had to say afterward. There were too many emotions. This remains one of the best years of her remarkable career. She won three grand slam tournaments. She dominated the sport at age 33. And, yes, she was upset two matches shy of the Grand Slam.

“Last question,” she said.

“How you get over all of it?” someone asked.

“Anyone else want to ask a different question than that?” she said.

No one did.