If Rafael Nadal’s defeat earlier in the U.S. Open felt like a referendum about the future prospects for his career, Serena Williams’ defeat to Roberta Vinci in three sets in the semifinals today does not merit such introspection. After dominating the first set of her match against the Italian 6-2, Williams simply ran out of steam in the latter two sets. It wasn’t even that she lost steam, though, but that Vinci stepped up and played the game of her life. Serena finished with eight more points won, 15 more aces, and 31 more winners, but Vinci’s smart defensive game wore down Williams as the Italian won the last two sets 6-4 6-4 to advance to her first-ever Grand Slam final.
Vinci, who an unseeded challenger was not expected to warrant much consideration against Serena, is no stranger to the latter rounds of Grand Slam tournaments… at least as a doubles player. In 2012 she won the U.S. Open women’s doubles title with longtime partner Sara Errani, and the duo have compiled a career Slam together with five total major doubles titles. She will now battle her compatriot, Flavia Pennetta, in an all-Italian women’s singles final that is also a first in Flushing Meadows.
All around it is a surprising finale of a surprising tournament. This is almost certainly an anomaly rather than the start of a seismic change in the women’s hierarchy, yet it feels like something has shifted in the sport as it always does when Serena is toppled in a major tournament.
That says little about Serena, though. The opportunity to see the first calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf pulled off the feat in 1988 faded just as Serena did down the stretch, but Williams is still the undisputed star of women’s tennis after dominating most of the season and winning the first three Grand Slam events on every possible surface.
Back when she was 28 years old, coming off a Wimbledon victory, Serena suffered a freak foot injury when she stepped on broken glass in a restaurant and missed the rest of the season. Her return to the sport in 2011 ended with victory at the U.S. Open after being ousted in the fourth round of Wimbledon in her title defense. We could have called her out then, and yet since her return from an injury that effectively sapped most of a season from the prime of her career Williams had claimed eight of the past 17 Grand Slam tournaments prior to this year’s U.S. Open.
So while a Grand Slam would have punctuated an already gleaming resume, it was hardly necessary. At this point of her career Serena has nothing to prove to anyone else but herself, and given her current form it still might happen before she retires. But just like the elusive Triple Crown in horse racing that was finally pipped this year by American Pharoah, the Grand Slam drought will eventually come to an end. Whether it is Serena or somebody else that eventually cracks the code does nothing to diminish a brilliant career by a transformative athlete.