NEW YORK — Twenty-six times, Serena Williams had played a grand slam match in 2015. And all 26 times she emerged triumphant.
But in her 27th encounter, the world No. 1 came unstuck against a stubborn Italian, Roberta Vinci, who wasn’t even seeded at the U.S. Open.
Vinci, best known for formerly being the world’s top-ranked doubles player, stunned Williams 2-6 6-4 6-4 in one of the greatest shocks in tennis history to end the American’s chances of completing the calendar-year grand slam.
Williams had toiled in quite a few of her past grand slam tussles this year but always found a way to win. Not against the 43rd-ranked Vinci, though, who not only overturned a set deficit but came back from 2-0 down in the third against the three-time defending champion.
“I don’t want to talk about how disappointing it is for me,” Williams began in her press conference, which was brief. “If you have any other questions, I’m open for that.”
Prior to Friday, Vinci lost all four of their head-to-heads without claiming a set.
So, instead of Williams trying to emulate Steffi Graf’s achievement of 1988, it will be an all-Italian U.S. Open final Saturday after Flavia Pennetta upset second-ranked Simona Halep 6-3 6-1 in Friday’s first women’s semifinal. That was a minor upset in comparison to Vinci’s scalp.
They’re probably saying “Forza Italia” back in Italy.
The fans who will show up in New York will thus be watching history, just not the type they were expecting.
“I don’t think I played that bad,” said Williams. “I made more unforced errors than I normally would make, but I think she just played really well. She did not want to lose today. Neither did I, incidentally. But she really didn’t, either.”
Williams discounted pressure being a factor in the defeat.
“I told you guys I don’t feel pressure,” she said. “I never felt pressure. I never felt that pressure to win here. I said that from the beginning.
“I made a couple of tight shots, to be honest, but maybe just about two.
“But that, I think … in any normal match you make two tight shots. Other than that, I don’t think I was that tight.”
The slice and other parts of Vinci’s game worked to begin with but after she broke for 2-1 in the first set, Williams found her intensity and the outcome of the opener became predictable.
When Williams fended off three straight break points early in the second — one with a stunning, angled backhand passing shot — romping to the finish line seemed like the inevitable conclusion for the American.
However, Vinci — at nearly 33, the oldest first-time women’s grand slam semifinalist in the Open Era — was in no hurry to exit center court.
She broke for 3-2 and held for 5-3 after Williams missed a crosscourt forehand on break point with the court exposed. Vinci saved another break point at 5-4 by smashing a forehand before taking the set by forcing an error.
Vinci was jubilant. Williams, meanwhile, slammed her racket to the ground when at her chair.
Order appeared to be restored when Williams grabbed a 2-0 lead in the decider; Vinci rallied for 2-2.
Williams looked close to tears but her mood changed dramatically when she crushed a backhand on the line in the fifth game.
Despite Vinci’s resistance, no one would have thought Williams would exit. After all, she overcame health issues at the Australian Open and French Open — in the latter, third sets were the norm — and then at Wimbledon, Williams was two points away from losing against 59th-ranked Heather Watson in the third round.
The key game of the third set, the one that indeed proved decisive, came at 3-3.
Williams struck 16 aces to go along with only four double faults overall, but two helped Vinci in that seventh game. Later capping a stunning rally by hitting a touch volley, Vinci implored the pro-Williams crowd to show her some appreciation.
But they were less enthusiastic when Vinci broke for 4-3.
There was no Williams escape act Friday, Vinci serving it out without difficulty before raising her arms in the air. Jubilant, Vinci nonetheless spared a thought for Williams.
“I was a little bit sorry for [her] because for me she cannot [win] the grand slam,” said Vinci, who drew laughs with one-liners in her press conference.
Williams tallied 50 winners and 40 unforced errors. Vinci had more unforced errors than winners (20 to 19) yet won most of the important points, a rarity against the 21-time grand slam champion.
Not since Wimbledon last year had Williams tasted defeat at a major, ousted back then by 25th seed Alize Cornet in round three.