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Serena’s Loss Paves Way for All-Italian U.S. Open Final

It’s a strange experience to watch an all-time relevant event without knowing for sure if it’s going to end up as such. Obviously if Serena Williams had escaped with a win after her opponent served for the match, it would be a relevant footnote in the Calendar Grand Slam she was two wins away from completing, but Heather Watson served for the match back at Wimbledon to stop Serena Slam 2.0, and only tennis diehards will recall anything pertaining to that match as time puts it further and further into the rearview mirror.

Not even when Roberta Vinci had broken Serena to get back on serve at 1-2 in the third set did I take her upset bid all that seriously. How could I? Serena puts herself in such situations with such frequency that it’s easy to become numb to them. After all, prior to Friday, of 19 Serena matches that went to a deciding set in 2015, only impending star Belinda Bencic found herself waving to the crowd afterwards in celebration.

The unspoken part about Serena’s quest for the Calendar Slam was that her opponents often got just as tight as she did. With Bencic defeated by a vintage performance from Serena’s sister Venus, I had figured the main obstacle to Williams might be a redlining Madison Keys, with her booming serve and thunderous forehand, winning points with rallies short enough to keep her from mentally dwelling on the enormity of the proceedings. But no, it was the 32-year-old Vinci, who wields practically the opposite skill set from a player like Keys.

Rather than playing lightning-quick points, she gave Serena all the time in the world to think. With her offspeed groundstrokes and rampant slicing, the ball often either brought Williams to the midcourt or sat up for her with little pace behind it. Those slices supplied Serena with enough time to overthink and not enough power to hit it effortlessly. Combined with the mental energy of the occasion, being forced to supply her own power seemed to be a cumulative effect for the 21-time Grand Slam champion.

Serena offered a entire game’s worth of self-motivational yelling in the middle of the third set. In retrospect, it wasn’t a turning point, it was a last gasp. She simply didn’t have her unbeatable level on a day where her aura was not enough to intimidate her opponent from flinching, as Vinci’s composure looked every bit the part of a player who has claimed all four Slams in her doubles career.

-For her efforts, Vinci earned a spot in her first Grand Slam final, where she’ll face fellow Italian Flavia Pennetta, who eliminated second seed Simona Halep in about an hour. Halep came out extremely flat, possibly due to the combination of energy it took to get past Sabine Lisicki and Victoria Azarenka. Halep’s the player who had won a major semifinal previously in her career, but the more composed player was Pennetta, surely in part due to her overall life experience. Not yet 24 and only a top-flight player for a couple of years, Halep is still adjusting to expectations and the day-in, day-out pressure of being the favorite. Meanwhile, Pennetta, 33, seized the day on what could very well be her final Slam semi.

Halep briefly got going in the second set and appeared to be staging a comeback. Her burst of energy was short lived though, as she simply didn’t have her game going and Pennetta steamrolled her 6-1, 6-3. While the subsequent loss by Serena must have surely made Halep feel as if she missed an opportunity to claim her maiden Slam, the fight and composure she showed in getting to the semifinals (her first at a major in over a year) in New York (along with a strong summer showing) has her career back on track.

-The men’s semifinals were much closer in resemblance to the Pennetta/Halep match. Though defending champion Marin Cilic fought through an ankle injury to avoid withdrawing, he was demolished by Novak Djokovic to the tune of 6-0, 6-1, 6-2. Despite Cilic’s limitations, it was the most impressive performance all tournament from the world No. 1. For Cilic, getting back to the semifinals was a more-than-respectable defense of a title no one saw coming and few expect to ever happen again.

-Roger Federer then matched Djokovic’s straight set win with one of his own over Stan Wawrinka. An even match in the early stages, Federer’s much-ballyhooed “SABR” move (rushing to net on second serve return) did seem to trigger a momentum shift. It was the start of Wawrinka losing focus and dropping serve, a lead Federer never relinquished, as he submitted a sublime 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 beatdown. The key for Stan was to make the match slower and more of a grind, but he had no answers for the blinding pace of the rejuvenated Federer. More on the Djokovic-Federer final in Sunday’s preview.

Women’s Championship: Flavia Pennetta vs Roberta Vinci

Both the #1 and #2 seeds got knocked out by the veteran Italians, so who knows what’s in store today. The head-to-head doesn’t provide any answers either:

That they’ve played on carpet gives an idea of how long these two ladies have been on tour, considering the surface isn’t even used anymore. If one were to make a guess, Pennetta is the likelier champion due to her overall better game and the possibility that the mental and physical investment required to defeat Williams will be too hard to move on from for Vinci.

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