FLUSHING MEADOWS, New York—Before Serena Williams played a single match at this year’s U.S. Open, every other top-10 player on her side of the draw had either lost or quit due to injury. When Williams did take the court on the tournament’s opening night, she played a woman who won five total points before abandoning the match. Her opponent, Vitalia Diatchenko, later tweeted that she’d been hobbling around with a torn Achilles. This was Williams’ path to victory in New York and the calendar-year Grand Slam: the tired, the poor, some huddled masses, Madison Keys, her own sister, and the occasional wretched refuse of your teeming shore. (That last part could’ve just been the persistent garbage smell in Ashe Stadium. New York—whatta town!)
The fact that the draw parted open for Williams is a sign of the weakness just below the very top of the women’s game and the depth at the sport’s midtier. But the women on the other side of the court never much mattered—Serena’s toughest opponent will always be herself. In her quest to match Steffi Graf’s Grand Slam feat, Williams has played every part. She is James Bond. She is the villain who revels in torturing our hero, but ultimately fails to finish the job. She is the laser that ends up cutting you in half.
In her semifinal match against unassuming, counterpunching Roberta Vinci, Williams finally met a woman she couldn’t will her way past. On Friday, it was Serena who got sliced to death, losing 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 in an upset so unlikely that Vinci admitted afterward that she woke up on Friday morning thinking she had no chance.
At the Australian Open, Wimbledon, the French Open, and through her first five matches in New York, Williams continually fell behind, righted herself, and won going away. She was 18-1 in third sets this year going into the U.S. Open semis: When she needs to be good, she’s great.
For the first half-hour against Vinci, she didn’t even need to be good. The 32-year-old Italian, ranked No. 43 in the world and known more as a doubles specialist than a singles player, had never taken a set off Williams before, and she didn’t come close in the first set on Friday. Williams won 33 points to Vinci’s 20, and hit 16 winners to the Italian’s three. High up in the largest tennis stadium in the world, it was hard to stay focused on the tiny figures scampering below, one of them much less imposing than the other. It felt like an exhibition on the way to a coronation, as boring as it was amazing.
In the fifth game of the second set, Williams fell behind 0-40. She hit an ace at 116 miles per hour. 15-40. She hit another ace at 105 miles per hour and screamed, “Yes!” 30-40. Her mother, Oracene Price, craned her neck upward to gaze at the afternoon sky, appearing about as unperturbed as a human can be while still maintaining consciousness. Williams then hit a second serve down the T, lined up a backhand, and missed it just a bit wide. Break to Vinci.
This was not a portentous moment. Vinci hadn’t really done anything, and Williams had done this exact thing so many times this year that it had become unremarkable. We knew what would happen because it’s what always happened: Serena smashes her opponent into the blue DecoTurf, then helps her up to her feet just so she can pound on her some more.
Though they may not have been visible to the rest of us, Vinci said in her post-match press conference that she could see some cracks in Serena as the match went on—that she looked tight, nervous. On the last point of the second set, Williams smashed groundstroke after groundstroke, and Vinci parried them back with flat forehands and backhand slices. Vinci took control of the rally on the 13th shot, striking a cross-court forehand that dragged Williams off the court. This time, Serena hadn’t made a mistake, and she wasn’t the one who dictated who won or lost the point. When Williams flailed and hit a backhand long, Vinci screamed, crouched, and pumped her fists, a version of the pose that Williams assumes when she smashes an ace. As the players took their seats, Serena smashed her racket into the DecoTurf, flung it behind her back, and unzipped her bag to take out another. The match was no longer boring.
Vinci said the racket smash gave her a window into Williams’ psyche—that she knew Serena was worried. That might have eased Vinci’s mind if she didn’t have to stop after every point to remind herself to breathe. The only way she could make it through the third set, Vinci said, was to forget that Williams was on the other side of the court. When asked to describe the point when she realized she could win the match, Vinci said, “Never.”
Watch the third set again with this in mind: The woman who toppled Serena Williams thought her only chance to win was for her opponent to vanish. Somehow, without ever believing she could do it, the Italian made the world’s most dominant athlete disappear.
But before that happened, at 3-3 in the final set, Williams hit a 126 mph ace. A few points earlier, Williams had chunked two double faults—another sign, perhaps, that she wasn’t feeling loosey-goosey. But when it really mattered, serving at deuce in the third set of a Grand Slam semifinal, she hit a serve faster than any Novak Djokovic had struck on his way to the U.S. Open semifinals. Every athlete wants to win, but rarely is willfulness so transparent, and so readily translated into something we all can see. Advantage Williams.
On the next point, strangely, Vinci took over the match. After a series of backhand slices and deep forehands, Vinci pulled Williams out wide with a sharply angled forehand inside the service line. Williams chased it down, then hit the exact same shot, only way better—shorter, sharper. As Vinci scuttled onto the green surface beyond the doubles alley, the crowd roared, celebrating Williams’ running, lunging, presumably game-winning forehand.
The game wasn’t over. Vinci got there, swung, and looped back a topspin forehand to extend the point. The roars built with every stroke: Williams backhand, Vinci slice approach, Williams forehand, Vinci forehand volley to the open court. Vinci won the point that Serena was supposed to win, that Serena had won at every key moment in every match in every gland slam tournament in 2015. The point that Serena basically had won until the moment she lost it. Vinci raised her palms to the sky, then pointed to her chest. At this moment, with the fans screaming louder than at any point of any match I’ve seen all week, Roberta Vinci must have felt invincible. And she still thought she was going to lose.
After the match, Williams refused to answer any questions that touched on the theme of disappointment. When asked about Vinci, she said, “I thought she played the best tennis in her career. … Actually, I guess it’s inspiring.” Speaking just above a whisper, Williams admitted that she hit a couple of tight shots—literally “just about two”—but said she never felt any pressure. Was there a moment where she thought maybe she couldn’t win? “No.”
There are two kinds of great moments in sports. The first is when a historically great athlete stamps himself as historically great: Michael Jordan, Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, jump shot over Bryon Russell, swish. The second are those moments we never could have anticipated, the ones that remind us that anything can happen even though it usually doesn’t.
This is the best tribute to Serena Williams: She is so great, so forceful, so dominant, that she convinced everyone who watched her play—even her opponent—that she could make history, and stop history from being made at her expense, by sheer force of will.
With Vinci serving at 40-0 at 5-4 of the third set, it still seemed like Williams couldn’t lose. And then she did, on a forehand half-volley winner that even the best player in the world couldn’t chase down. When it was over, Vinci turned her back to the court and covered her eyes. When she gathered herself and turned back around, her opponent hadn’t disappeared. Serena Williams, the woman who couldn’t lose, was waiting at the net to congratulate Roberta Vinci, the woman who knew she couldn’t win.