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, Williams 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 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.
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 Simona Halep 6-3 6-1 in Friday’s first women’s semifinal.
The fans who’ll show up will thus be watching history, just not the type they were expecting.
Pennetta and Vinci were born in the same region in Italy, Puglia, and Pennetta, too, is a former doubles No. 1, but they possess completely different styles.
Pennetta is a power baseliner with a forceful, dependable backhand, while Vinci authors a wicked slice on the backhand and likes to move forward.
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 first 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.
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 the 2-0 lead in the third; Vinci, though, 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 Heather Watson.
The key game of the third, 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.
Not since Wimbledon last year had Williams tasted defeat at a major, ousted back then by Alize Cornet.
Like Vinci, Pennetta probably won’t ever want to leave New York. She has made at least the quarterfinals in six of her last seven visits, reaching one major quarterfinal outside the Big Apple.
Pennetta’s form, by her own admission, wasn’t spectacular heading into the U.S. Open. But the result against Halep came one round after Pennetta sent two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova packing.
Halep lost her focus after failing to convert break points in the third game, with Pennetta breaking in the fourth and never loosening her grip in the first set.
The Romanian’s revival in the second set — she led 3-1 — ended in unbelievable fashion, Pennetta capturing 15 straight points to take a stranglehold on the affair.
No wonder Halep shook her head as she exited the court and made her way to the locker room.
The tennis world was collectively shaking its head in disbelief about two hours later.