Roberta Vinci kept trying to toss a towel over her head, the best way to block out the deafening crowd of nearly 23,000, all trying to will Serena Williams into the final of the U.S. Open and one sneaker step closer to the Grand Slam.
But as she sat in her seat during the last couple of changeovers, already up a break in the third set, Vinci, her whole body shaking, kept grasping as the towel slid onto her lap. Finally, she gave up and let it fall to the ground.
In the end, it was Williams who threw in the towel, succumbing to a paralyzing bout of nerves as well as to the soft-paced but consistent play of the 32-year-old from Taranto, a shipbuilding town in Italy.
Roberta Vinci won the Texas Tennis Open in Grapevine in 2012 with a 7-5 6-3 victory over Jelena Jankovic of Serbia. The Italian reached the the U.S. Open quarterfinals less than two weeks later.
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After 33 straight wins in major championships, and victories at the last three U.S. Opens, as well as the Australian, French and Wimbledon earlier this year, Williams saw her streak snapped just two wins shy of the elusive Grand Slam. It was snapped by a woman ranked No. 43 who had never taken a set off Williams in four previous meetings, including last month in Toronto.
“I’m sorry, guys,” a nearly speechless Vinci told the crowd after the 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 win. “I’m sorry I beat Serena, but for me it is an incredible moment, the best moment of my life.”
Vinci has won only nine career singles titles, including the 2012 Texas Tennis Open in Grapevine. Her victory Friday, coupled with Flavia Pennetta’s 6-1, 6-3 upset of second-seeded Simona Halep, means that, for the first time, two Italians will meet in the final of a major. The last Italian to win one was Francesca Schiavone, who captured the French Open in 2010.
Halep, who reached the final at Roland Garros and the semifinals at Wimbledon last year, dropped the first set in just 28 minutes as the 33-year-old Pennetta pushed every ball back deep, high and slow. Showing an uncharacteristic lack of emotion, Halep was broken in the seventh game of the second set when Pennetta took a 69 mph serve and belted an inside-out forehand return winner. Pennetta held at love by winning her 15th straight point.
“You never know, you just have to try and play your best,” said Pennetta, who three years ago was close to retirement because of a lingering wrist injury. “The good things are coming when you never expect.”
Vinci, sensing from the outset that Williams was nervous, played her own brand of nervy tennis. Despite 16 aces, one a tournament-record 126 mph, Williams appeared sluggish and out of sorts, her shots hitchy rather than smooth and forceful. The American hit 50 winners to just 19 for Vinci but also committed 40 unforced errors.
Serena Williams hit 50 winners to just 19 for Roberta Vinci, but the American also committed 40 unforced errors.
When Williams broke for a 2-0 lead in the third set, it appeared as if her Grand Slam hopes might just live on. But Vinci broke right back on one of Williams’ four double faults. When the 33-year-old American held for 3-2 she bellowed like a lion, shaking her fists and her head at the same time.
But Vinci broke again for a 4-3 lead, at one point pushing Williams side to side along the baseline and then hitting a winning forehand volley that delighted the crowd and prompted the Italian to throw up her arms, pound her heart and mouth the words “For me.” She won the match with two spectacular half-volley drop shots that Williams failed to negotiate.
For Williams, the loss means that there remain but five winners of the coveted Grand Slam — Don Budge, Rod Laver, Maureen Connolly Brinker, Margaret Smith Court and, the last, Steffi Graf in 1988.
Graf was supposed to fly in from her home in Las Vegas to welcome Williams into the club. She can now cancel her flight.
As for Vinci and Pennetta, one thing is certain. As a smiling Vinci said, “Tomorrow, one Italian will win for sure.”
U.S. Open women’s championship
2 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
No. 26 Flavia Pennetta vs. Roberta Vinci