Veni, Vidi, Vinci: Serena is conquered in an all-time sports upset

On the sprawling canvas of life itself, one day blends into the next. We get up, we work, we aspire, we do what we need to do.

We enjoy — if we’re lucky — some escapist evening entertainment in a comfortable room with ample food and drink. We might find a few hours per week in which to volunteer for an important cause. We might go out for a nature walk or a weekend camping trip.

Basically, though, life moves forward, and our brains are wired to forget a lot of the things we do each day.

We won’t remember every moment of every movie we watch. We process experiences rather than the final details. We can’t absorb every last granular fragment of every day — our minds need to be clear, ready to handle the next challenge in the present tense.

Only when a day delivers some kind of thunderbolt — sometimes for the worst possible reasons, sometimes for the best, sometimes when the worst and best coexist, depending on your perspective — do our minds attach more importance to a living event and store away those extra details. On these days, which cut through the ordinary nature of everyday life, we remember where we were and what we were doing when a part of our existence became anything other than ordinary.

Happily, titanic sports upsets don’t involve a loss of life (though they feel like deaths for fans of the losing player or team). They don’t generally involve a loss of livelihoods (though tournament organizers and television executives might curse the darkness). They blessedly don’t affect questions of justice or fairness. They don’t measure the morality of competitors. They merely provide some of the most powerful and centrally memorable images we’ll witness in our lives as sports fans and chroniclers.

Titanic sports upsets don’t carry the significance of the truly weighty events which unfold in arenas far more central to the welfare of the planet, but they can nevertheless endure in our minds with the primacy of other defining occasions in life.

Without any remote shred of a hint of a doubt, Roberta Vinci’s win over a quite “Vinci-ble” Serena Williams on Friday in the semifinals of the United States Open qualifies as an all-time “where were you when it happened?” sports moment. In a blogging culture easily given to hyperbole and instant overreaction, this kind of event is immune to such excess and knee-jerk exaggeration.

This IS, without question, one of a handful of the greatest upsets in tennis’s long history, since the sport was founded in the final third of the 19th century. This IS, without any debate, one of about 40 to 50 of the greatest upsets in the entire history of sports. It instantly acquires a lofty place in the pantheon for a number of reasons, the chief one being that its author frankly acknowledged she had no real chance before the match began.

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In a very charming and delightful on-court interview after she delivered her thunderbolt against the best female tennis player of our generation, Vinci told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi that she wasn’t expecting to win, merely intending to enjoy the moment and see what might happen. Notions of victory didn’t enter her thoughts. Vinci’s laughter and the sense of disbelief which accompanied it give credence to the claim that this upset is not just the “1 percent” of upsets, but the “0.01 percent” club.

In singles, Vinci carved out a perfectly respectable career, but entering this U.S. Open, she had all of two career major-tournament quarterfinal apperances at the age of 32. Vinci’s made her living in tennis primarily on the basis of her doubles prowess. She’s the holder of a career grand slam in doubles — that’s where tennis fans have witnessed excellence from her racquet. Having to stand alone on the side of the net opposite Serena Jameka Williams, Vinci did not seem to be in her element.

When Serena won a routine first set, 6-2, the idea of a Vinci victory was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Even when Serena lost the second set — in a mid-match lapse seen many times before in 2015 — few onlookers were worried. When Serena then took a 2-0 lead at the start of the third set, nearly everyone taking in this match inwardly thought, “Well, order restored.”

Yet, in that third set, you could see Serena breathe heavily and quickly, clearly feeling the pressure associated with her pursuit of tennis’s Grand Slam for the first time since Steffi Graf pulled off the feat in 1988. This weight certainly influenced the outcome, but it is just as true that Vinci stayed close to Serena and forced the 21-time major champion to confront the cauldron of the hour, late in the third set.

Vinci did have to save a break point when serving at 4-3, 30-40, in the third to preserve her lead and eventually finish the job. She won enough points by dint of her own excellence to ask more questions of Serena. Being human, Serena didn’t have the answers on this day, and an upset for the ages was born.

Meanwhile, I need to find that cartoon character costume and prepare to stand on my head. Serena, the winner of the last four majors (just not in the same calendar year, a feeling Martina Navratilova knows well), has to settle for a 26-1 record at the majors in 2015. Meanwhile, Italy and the WTA will give us a first-time major champion, as Vinci faces Flavia Pennetta on Saturday afternoon in a “La Dolce Vita” party for 23,000-plus spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Can you believe you’re reading these sentences and details? I know I can’t believe I’m writing them.

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What really does make a great sports upset? We’ve already established that the (lack of) belief on the part of the victorious underdog is one component. Other components include levels of achievement. In singles, Vinci had never before reached the semifinals of a major — only at this late stage of her career did she break through. Serena wasn’t just bidding for the Grand Slam — she was going for a 22nd major and a seventh U.S. Open. If this upset had occurred at Roland Garros and not in New York, it wouldn’t rate quite as highly — it would be up there, but in New York, it grows in magnitude relative to other (possible) places.

Another ingredient in an all-time upset: The favorite asserts her (or his) superiority early on. It’s not as though Serena woke up on the wrong side of the bed. She led by a set and then by a break in the final set. She started and later continued to reaffirm patterns that have been in evidence for much of her career. The idea that Vinci, of all people, would overcome a one-set deficit and later a 2-0 deficit in the third to mount a successful comeback — all without needing a tiebreaker in either of the sets she won — defies all imagination.

Was Serena tired? No — she actually had two whole days off before this match. Was Serena ill or markedly hurt? No. She had to fix the taping on one of her feet in the third set, but other than that, nothing. Were the weather conditions severe enough to change the calculus of the match? Not with the new framework of the Ashe Stadium roof structure, which has cut down on the effects of wind at this year’s tournament.

You can look for reasons to try to explain this occurrence beyond one player’s rare loss in a battle with nerves and pressure, and the other player’s fearless embrace of an equally rare opportunity to make a name for herself in singles, not just doubles.

In the process of looking for those reasons, however, you won’t find any.

The more you use every possible litmus test in the attempt to downgrade the magnitude of this upset, you’ll fail. The more scrutiny you apply, the more this case study holds up as the epitome of a shock to the cognitive system, the event which truly lies beyond belief… or at least the very edge of it, no closer to the imagination.

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There’s only one last thing to say on the topic of great sports upsets.

Early in a season or in a low-tier tournament, a result in a competition might draw the widest eyes and most disbelieving gasps. Solely in terms of rankings or statuses within that sport, one might see an upset which — measured numerically or structurally — might qualify as bigger than anything else which has come before it.

A foremost example of this: Chaminade, an NAIA school, beating the top-ranked NCAA (top division) basketball team in the United States, the University of Virginia, in December of 1982. I can’t speak to upsets in sports or leagues played outside the United States, but within the United States, that might be our nation’s single greatest upset solely based on levels of competitive stature.

However, one must immediately note that nothing was lost by Virginia on a grander scale in that game, or in other early-season contests. The Cavaliers worked their way to the final eight in the 1983 NCAA Tournament. Their stumble against Chaminade was a seismic event in terms of the unexpected nature of that one night on the Hawaiian islands, but it did not affect the pursuit of a championship or the attainment of a unique achievement in the history of the sport.

“Vinci d. S. Williams, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4,” is going to last in any discussion of sports upsets precisely because it occurred on the grandest of stages and denied an iconic player a supremely rare accomplishment, one which would have stood on its own in the larger theater of sport.

Roberta Vinci will play for her first major championship on Saturday. That in itself is a moment of a lifetime. Yet, if Vinci does nothing else from this moment forward in her career, she will always be able to say, “I stopped Serena.” She has already authored an upset which will never, ever die. In so doing, Vinci has given herself a permanent place — and moreover, a full chapter — in the great big book of tennis history.

Life is Beautiful if you’re an Italian in New York.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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