The pursuit of excellence is mired by obstacles, both physical and mental, in an individual sport like tennis. Athletes earn fame and fortune point by point, match by match and tournament by tournament. Always judged by the media and the world at large, athletes constantly work hard and try to remain unfazed by how their performances are dissected and devoured.
The finish line could mean different things to different players. And especially in tennis it is a matter of timing. Some players achieve their potential and some don’t.
Some tripped over before they could cross it
The tickets for the US Open Women’s Final, for the first time in history, was sold out earlier than the Men’s Final. The focus was on one incredible woman – Serena Williams. Having achieved the Serena Slam 2.0, she was expected to lift the US Open title and equal Steffi Graf’s tally of 22 Grand Slam titles.
The draw looked ominous for Williams as it featured players like Madison Keys, Karolina Pliskova, Belinda Bencic, Agnieszka Radwanska and Venus Williams. In the other half of the draw Eugenie Bouchard was scripting a much awaited comeback by toughing out 3 consecutive match wins. She had to withdraw from her fourth round encounter due to a concussion she suffered due to an unfortunate accident in the Women’s locker room.
Over the first two days of play the dark horses in the Women’s Draw were ousted one by one by those players who had no business to do so, till they actually started turning predictions on the head. Roberta Vinci did the unthinkable. Making the most of the missed encounter with Bouchard in the fourth round, Vinci came into her semifinal match against Williams as a 300-1 underdog.
Williams came out firing on all cylinders to win the first set 6-2. Vinci, who had never won a single time against Williams in the past, sliced her way into the match literally. She moved the American around the court, using her backhand slice to great effect with the occasional deft drop shots. Rarely giving her opponent the opportunity to gain rhythm, Vinci forced a deciding set.
Though Williams started to cook a bagel in the decider as she did against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Vinci had her own secret recipe in place. From being 2-0 down in the decider, the Italian rallied to level the set at 3-3. At that point of the match when Williams let out a “war cry,” Vinci calmly soaked it all in with a wry smile. She broke Williams in that game and consolidated the break to lead 5-3.
Though the World No. 1 subsequently held her serve and left the match on Vinci’s racquet, pressure got the better of her. While Vinci just focused on keeping the ball in, Williams sprayed unforced errors from every part of the court. Vinci needed just one match point. With Williams stranded in the far end of the court Vinci executed a pick up volley to perfection for a clean winner.
The crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, although disappointed at their home player’s loss, celebrated the underdog. As Serena left the court in a hurry with her trademark wave and finger wag, the 32 year old Vinci was in disbelief and awe of what she had accomplished. The crowd seemed to have feigned allegiance to their American Queen as they cheered Vinci on during her hilarious on-court interview. They were as happy, if not more, as she was. Tennis had triumphed.
Pressure can be a very tricky opponent. Serena Williams wilted under pressure and the burden of expectations of turning 22 as a Grand Slam Champion wreaked havoc on her mind. The same Serena who battled the odds at the French Open and the Wimbledon to put herself in a position to see her tennis career come a full circle at the US Open had failed to get past that finish line.
Some drew it when the winning streak had just begun
Roberta Vinci’s countrywoman Flavia Penneta reached her maiden Grand Slam Final by taking out some big names and former US Champions in her half of the draw – Sam Stosur, Petra Kvitova and World No.2 Simona Halep. In the first ever all Italian Women’s Final, Penneta handled the pressure better to beat Vinci in straight sets to win her maiden Grand Slam title in the Singles category.
During the presentation ceremony it was hard to say who won the title. Vinci showed a lot of heart and was all smiles for compatriot Penneta. Both players celebrated as if they had won a Fed Cup. The presentation ceremony was light hearted and fun till Penneta decided to drop the retirement bomb. At 33 she had decided to draw her own finish line and strongly felt that the time was right to move on into her next phase of life.
Penneta, during the presentation ceremony, revealed that she was fighting inner battles from 3 days prior to the French Open this year. Having made the retirement decision a month before the US Open, Penneta had perfectly handled pressure by playing like a potential Champion rather than treating every match in the tournament as potentially the last one.
It is ironic that a 21 time Grand Slam Champion could not tackle pressure but a 33 year old could embrace it to win her first ever Grand Slam title in a match that was her last chance in her career to achieve such a feat.
In the Men’s Doubles, Pierre Hugues-Herbert and Nicolas Mahut became the first all-French team to win at the US Open. The pair, a mix of youth and experience, reacted in different ways in crucial situations. Mahut, 33 years of age, looked really tight at Match Point while the young Herbert, 24, was flashy and oozed confidence with every shot he made. In the end it was Herbert’s backhand volley into the open space that helped the French team clinch their first ever Doubles Grand Slam title. In his 15- year professional career Mahut won his first ever Grand Slam title.