Serena Williams the person has come close to death multiple times, so the experience of being a Serena Williams fan has legitimately — and literally — been scary at times. Almost dying is no joke. “Serena fans have had an easy time of things” would not really be an accurate statement.
Serena used to be given far less than full acceptance by a full range of American tennis fans. The Williams sisters were not embraced a decade ago as they are now. It is their triumph that they are warmly received today. They have molded society in a better direction, as opposed to society molding them. Those who consider themselves Serena fans know that despite the 23 major singles titles and the 14 doubles titles and the Olympic gold medal, this has not been a smooth, paved road to today’s bounty of gratitude. The titles, the adulation, the joys of motherhood, the successful comeback (yes, already successful in a larger context — HOW successful is the only question left) — these gifts for a Serena fan are abundant, but they haven’t come without a considerable price. Those who are Serena fans have arrived at the 2018 U.S. Open knowing they have paid their dues.
As explained above, the hardships associated with being a Serena fan have come largely in — and through — the form of her off-court scares and scars, moments when she was unwell or when society shunned her. On the court, there hasn’t been much for a Serena fan to regret or lament.
Virtually every big prize in tennis. 23-7 in major finals, 30-5 in major semifinals. A huge haul of WTA titles and the wealth of doubles success with Venus. Serena’s career, despite its interruptions and hardships, is a mansion full of riches. Meanwhile, Maria Sharapova’s career is in decay. It’s pretty good to be a Serena fan right now.
And YET… if there is one moment which most Serena fans simply can’t stand — a moment they can’t bear to see, hear, or read about — can the answer be anything other than one of the five major semifinals which evaded the grasp of the best closer in women’s tennis?
“NO, NOT HER! PLEASE DON’T! STOP IT!”
Who is “her”? It can be only one person: Roberta Vinci, author of what was quite possibly the single biggest match upset in the history of tennis.
Vinci denied Serena the (true, classic, calendar-based) tennis Grand Slam in the 2015 U.S. Open semifinals, getting rolled in the first set but rallying to win in three. The upset enabled Little Italy in New York to converge on Ashe Stadium for the final between Vinci and Flavia Pennetta, but as charming as that moment proved to be on Championship Saturday, it robbed Serena of a special place in history and denied both the U.S. Open and the United States a chance to celebrate Serena in an unprecedented way.
It stings even now not just because of the moment and the achievement which were denied Serena, but because the matchup seemed so lopsided on paper and began in that fashion in the first set. The match was a timeless reminder of a reality I asserted in a lengthy essay on Roger Federer after his shocking U.S. Open loss to John Millman on Monday night: These are human beings, not robots. Sports are not push-button automatic processes, but organic dramas. If a person feels awful or tired or cranky or nervous, what should be a straightforward and easy match becomes very complicated.
Serena got nervous, and in the face of those nerves, Vinci was well-suited to frustrate and unnerve her opponent. Slices, drop shots, mixtures of pace, steady defense — Vinci threw all these ingredients into the pot and found a recipe for comfort and confidence while an agitated Serena couldn’t pull herself together. Vinci won the second set. Serena so often regroups in third sets — as she did against Kaia Kanepi in the fourth round of this year’s U.S. Open — but on one day, a day unlike any other, nothing is guaranteed, especially when a match is reduced to one set.
Vinci kept throwing Serena off balance. Serena wasn’t able to hit the extra ball, which is what she needed to do to stay the course. Soon enough, the upset was complete, and the tennis world was turned upside down.
Why mention Vinci? More precisely, you might be wondering, why is Vinci a part of the story as Serena prepares for another U.S. Open semifinal?
The answer: Though hardly a clone of Vinci, especially on the backhand side, Serena’s semifinal opponent this year is a lot like Vinci. Anastasija Sevastova isn’t a reincarnation of the recently retired Italian, but she is similar enough to notice. The drop shots are part of the connection; the mixing of speeds is another; the relatively small physical stature of the Latvian offers another component of the comparison.
On paper, Serena should roll through Sevastova. On Thursday, she might do exactly that. No one would be surprised.
And yet, one can at least envision a Sevastova win — not because it is likely (it isn’t), but because Vinci offers a template. Sevastova made Sloane Stephens play the ball under pressure in Tuesday’s U.S. Open quarterfinal victory. Sevastova, if on her game, will force Serena to hit the ball past her in extended rallies.
Serena, when she broke for *4-0 in the second set over Karolina Pliskova on Tuesday night, was shown by ESPN visibly overcome with emotion, the kind of emotion which was very self-aware, highly conscious of realizing how remarkable it is that after childbirth and a near-death experience, Serena is very close to winning this tournament and capturing a 24th major title, which would be the most in history alongside Margaret Court. You know Serena wants this; she wants it even more. The conscious awareness of everything she has gone through made Serena so emotional on the court.
That emotional well — accessed to such great effect on so many occasions this summer, whether at Wimbledon or in New York — is a blessing for Serena. Yet, as the Vinci match reminds us, Serena’s emotions aren’t always harnessed perfectly. They can become a curse. The patient, change-speeds game of Sevastova could thwart Serena’s rhythm much as Vinci’s crafty play drove her batty in 2015.
This isn’t the same exact situation as the 2015 U.S. Open semifinals, but the 2018 semis offer enough noticeable parallels to make the connection.
Serena should win this match. She probably will win this match. 2015 and Roberta Vinci offer the reminder, however, that “should” and “probably” guarantee absolutely nothing.
Serena won’t be given what she wants. She has to go out and get it on Thursday in Arthur Ashe Stadium.