US Open 2015: Italian delight for Pennetta and Vinci as Williams and Halep bid arrivederci

Serena Williams's hopes of securing a calendar Grand Slam are ended by Italy's Roberta Vinci in US Open semis

All four women who lined up in the US Open’s semi-finals had endured quarter-final battles of the highest order to get here: three-setters every one.

Serena Williams’ was a fast and furious hour and 38 minutes against sister Venus, while Roberta Vinci took a gruelling two and half hours to beat Kristina Mladenovic. Vinci’s compatriot Flavia Pennetta took almost as long to get past Petra Kvitova, but Simona Halep was detained the longest by Victoria Azarenka—not just two hours 40 minutes but over an hour by torrential rain.

No doubt the latter two victors, Pennetta and Halep, were relieved when more storms washed out Thursday’s schedule: time to rest and recuperate before the rigours of their semi-finals.

Not that there was any question about the fitness of the remaining four, even though No2 seed Halep, at 23, was almost a decade younger than the others.

Williams, the eldest at almost 34, became the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam at Wimbledon this year and is the oldest No1. She and her opponent Vinci, at age 32, combined to create the oldest US Open semi in the Open Era. The unseeded Vinci was also the oldest first-time Grand Slam semi-finalist in the Open Era.

However these records were just the tip of the iceberg, as the expected—world Nos 1 and 2—took on the unexpected: The first Grand Slam semi-final in the Open Era to feature two Italians.

Meanwhile Williams, arguably, had more to win and to lose than any of them, despite being the hot favourite to lift her fifth Grand Slam title in a row. Could she possibly claim that rare thing, a Calendar Slam, on home soil? Could she equal the Steffi Graf’s Open record of 22 Majors? Based on her 2015 form, a 53-2 run plus a 4-0 winning record over Vinci, the answer was a resounding yes.

First, though, Pennetta had to overcome not just an age but a ranking disparity, 26 to Halep’s No2—and coming into New York, she had won just two matches since the French Open. But she did have one big advantage. In her four previous meetings with Halep, the Italian had won three. And it soon became clear why.

Pennetta quickly showcased the first of what would be a valuable tactic throughout the match, a fine drop shot. And although it was Halep who got the first break point in the third game, another Pennetta drop-shot-lob combo fended her off. The Italian was also out-Haleping Halep, with deep ground-strokes hit to the limits of the court, drawing enough errors to gain the first break, and she consolidated for 4-1.

Halep seemed to lack her usual energy and pinpoint ball-striking, and the errors cranked up to 14 in the set. The Italian took full advantage to break again and served it out, 6-1, with a blistering backhand down the line in a mere 28 minutes.

Halep dug in at the start of the second, forcing an exchange of breaks, and then breaking again for 3-1. She fist-pumped, the crowd roared: Was this the turnaround?

Pennetta had other ideas, and hit straight back, not with one break but a sequence of five games, hitting drops, chasing to the net, firing return-of-serve winners. It was spectacular tennis, and it earned her the ultimate reward. She closed it out, 6-3, in under an hour, with her 23rd winner of the match.

Asked what this very special milestone, a first Grand Slam final, meant to her, Pennetta broke into one of the loveliest smiles in tennis and summed it up in a single word: “Everything!”

And what advice did she have for the daunting task that lay ahead for her compatriot, ranked just 43?

“Just enjoy it: Have fun!”

It was an exhortation that would rebound around Arthur Ashe as one of the biggest Grand Slam upsets in women’s tennis began to unfold: Vinci did indeed throw caution to the wind and enjoy every moment.

Williams opened with an ace, but it soon became clear that the touch and variety of Vinci were unsettling her. The world No1 dropped serve in a tense eight-minute third game, but struck straight back, courtesy of two backhand winners. She had been stung into action, and quickly held for 3-2.

Another break, and Williams was fired up but still edgy. She went after Vinci’s serve and roared herself to another break for the set, 6-2, in 31 minutes and with 16 winners to Vinci’s three.

Williams faced break point in the opening game of the second but extinguished it with a bullet of a backhand and a 122mph ace. However, things were turning around as Vinci chipped and sliced, threw in drop-shots and wide swinging serves, and drew Williams to the net: it all pressed the champion beyond her comfort. The Italian broke in the fifth game and held her lead for the set, 6-4.

This was the first set Vinci had ever won against Williams—and the partisan crowd sensed trouble. They cheered on their star, but she became ever tighter as the battle of nerves took its toll. The winners still came but so did the errors. Having got an immediate break, she gave it back with a double fault. And then came the decisive climax of the match.

Williams twice hit double faults, and was entirely bamboozled by Vinci in a rally of drops, chases, and a final volley winner from the Italian. Vinci roared, and lifted her arms to demand the crowd’s approval: She got it, and she smiled her delight.

Two tentative forehands later, and Williams conceded the break, struck her 36th unforced error on break-back point, and Vinci served it out, 6-4—appropriately enough with a volley winner.

Considering the moment, considering the shock, considering the desperate disappointment for their favourite daughter, the crowd went into uproar for one of the most captivating, fairytale winners here in many a year.

Vinci was too emotional to even answer the first question, but once she got into her swing, like her tennis, she was full of flair.

“An incredible moment for me, like a dream: I beat Serena, I…. Sorry guys, but for me it’s an amazing moment… Best moment of my life!

Asked if she had thought this win was possible, she was adamant: “No! No, that’s true, really! I just try to enjoy, play, enjoy… I said, ‘don’t think, put the ball on the court, don’t think about Serena on the other side, and then run, put the ball in and run!’”

She had Arthur Ashe in the palm of her hand, as she added: “I’m sorry, because for American people, for Serena, for the Grand Slam—but today is my day. Sorry guys.”

A despondent Williams, straight into press, declined to talk of disappointment—though it was written all over her face. But she grabbed one chance to talk of the positives she has had this year: “Yes, thank you. I felt very happy to get that win at Wimbledon you know. I did win three Grand Slams this year—four in a row—which is pretty good.”

And she will, come the defence of her Australian title, have the chance to equal Steffi Graf’s 22 Majors. But the unspoken question now is, will she ever again have the chance to win the Calendar Slam? It is a mountain to climb after such efforts this year, but then next year is also Olympic year… and Graf won the still more elusive Golden Slam: all four Majors and Olympic gold.

Perhaps the thought of that opportunity will lift Williams as 2015 gives way to 2016. For now, though, it’s about ‘bella Italia’ as Pennetta and Vinci throw out the rule book: Italy will have a US Open champion come Saturday.

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