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Roberta Vinci may have delivered one of -- if not the -- biggest Grand Slam upsets of all time

SerenaŠ—Ès small solace: Martina has been there

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Originally published on 12/09/15

So, that’s that. Serena Williams, three sets from the Calendar Slam, was far from the only one stunned by Roberta Vinci in the US Open semi-finals.

For shock value, for what was on the line, and for the gut-punch it delivered to the narrative of the tournament since the world No.1 claimed her third major of the year at Wimbledon in July, it ranks among the greatest upsets in tennis history.

Sampras versus Bastl, 2002? The age may correlate, but at 30 Wimbledon was Sampras’s 30th tournament without a title. Nadal versus Soderling, 2009? In the frame, given Nadal’s otherworldly dominance at Roland Garros both before and after the shock fourth-round defeat, but his subsequent withdrawal from Wimbledon with a knee injury suggested that the loss owed as much to his physical condition as the Swede’s bloody-mindedness in Paris.

There are so many upsets worthy of the name, yet almost all pale in comparison to what played out before disbelieving eyes on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday. In truth, only one comes close.

When Martina Navratilova headed to the grass courts of Kooyong for the 1984 Australian Open, she had won six consecutive majors. This was during the brief period when the year’s first slam was the year’s last slam, bringing the curtain down on the season in December rather than raising it in January from 1977 (when there were two in the same year) to 1985.

Since Chris Evert’s 1983 triumph at Roland Garros, opening major of the season during this interim period, Navratilova had been irresistible. Before there was the Serena Slam there was the Cash Slam – nothing to do with Pat, but an ITF-sponsored $1 million bonus introduced in 1982 for any player who laid claim to all four majors at once. The Czech-American was the first to earn the cheque with victory in Paris year on from Evert’s triumph, but money and history were two different pursuits. Purists and pros craved the Calendar Slam.

And so, after repeat victories at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, to Melbourne. On paper, Navratilova arrived in imperious form, with a 69-match winning streak and just one defeat – one – in 18 months, to Hana Mandlikova almost a year earlier. The bid to become just the fifth player, and third woman, to win all four majors in the same season, looked like a sure thing.

But observers had expressed their doubts. Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford wrote that “Navratilova's volleys had become more jabs than punches, her attacking slice backhand short and choppy. Also, since she'd started working on a new high-kick serve late last year, her wide and wonderful lefty delivery into the ad court often seemed to have been missing in action.”

Nevertheless, Navratilova, 28 and at the height of her physical prowess, marched towards history. Kathy Rinaldi had the temerity to take the first set from her in the third round, but of the other 10 sets that propelled Navratilova to the semi-finals, no player took more than three games. As Evert, as always, progressed in the other half of the draw, all that stood between another All-American showdown was Czechoslovakian teenager Helena Sukova in the semi-finals.

Sukova was the No.12 seed. Her promise had yet to translate at the majors, but it was coming: at Wimbledon, she reached the fourth round at a major for the second time in her career, and at the US Open her first quarter-final. And here she was, with a creditable win over Pam Shriver, the No.3 seed, in the last eight in Melbourne.

Navratilova knew Sukova well – her mother, Vera Sukova, was a Wimbledon champion and had coached the Czech junior tennis team in the early 1970s that included a young Martina. Navratilova had defected to the United States in 1975 seven years before Vera Sukova died of a brain tumour; there was tragedy laced into the magic of her only daughter facing her brightest pupil with so much at stake for them both.

The match went with the script as Navratilova claimed the first set 6-1, albeit by edging a number of deuce games. Then, the drastic rewrite. Unfazed by the occasion, Sukova began sticking her returns, forcing Navratilova to play those jabbed volleys and reaping dividends. The teenager took the second set 6-3 and raced to a 3-0 lead in the third, but Navratilova rallied, broke back and seemed to have righted the ship at 5-5.

No dice. Sukova broke in the 11th game and, on a nerve-fraying sixth match point, delivered the upset, snapped the streak and denied Navratilova her place among the rarest of champions.

“It hurts, but I’ll get over it,” said Navratilova, who afforded herself four weeks to recover physically and emotionally from the season. “If I’d have won, I’d have done it all. If I lost I had to start from scratch. Both are hard to cope with.

“I still have two arms, two legs and a heart,” she added.

Sukova went on to lose to Evert in three sets in the final – she would reach three more finals, but never win a singles major, ending her career with nine doubles titles, while Evert extended her record of winning at least one of the majors through a 12th season.

Navratilova reached the next 11 Grand Slam finals and added seven further titles to the 11 she arrived with in Melbourne, but never again ran as close to completing even a Cash Slam. That honour fell to the woman who ended her run of consecutive Wimbledon titles at six in 1988: one Steffi Graf, the fifth and last player to complete what we now call the Calendar Slam.

Time will tell what effect the fallout from Flushing Meadows has on Serena Williams, but one woman is sure of what precipitated the shock heard round the tennis world.

“She lost to the Grand Slam more than anything else,” Navratilova told Christopher Clarey of the New York Times. “But still, Vinci had to finish it off.”

Finish it off she did. It hurts, but Serena will get over it.

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Roberta Vinci may have delivered one of -- if not the -- biggest Grand Slam upsets of all time
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