This was the point that did in Serena Williams’ bid for a historic calendar year Grand Slam, which went down in flames on Friday after unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci stunned Williams 2-6 6-4 6-4 in the U.S. Open semifinals. It’s one of the best points you’ll see played on a tennis court. It also shows just how insanely hard it is to achieve what Serena was trying to do by attempting to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in the same calendar year, a feat which hasn’t been accomplished in men’s or women’s tennis since Steffi Graf did it in 1988.
With Williams serving on a game point at 3-3 in the third set, Vinci manages to engage the world number one in an absolutely epic defensive baseline battle to start the point. Eventually Vinci forces Serena into her far forehand corner with a beautiful runner, but Williams responds with a devastatingly angled cross-court forehand that pulls the Italian completely off the court. Somehow, Vinci manages to reach the shot and sends back an amazing forehand that puts Serena on the defensive. As the crowd noise builds, Serena is pushed back into the corner, Vinci approaches the net, and finishes off Williams with a perfect drop shot that Williams runs across the entire court to try to reach, desperately lunging forward despite the fact that it was clearly going to fall for a winner. A gassed Serena can’t believe it and a jubilant Vinci puts her hand on her ear, calling for the crowd to recognize her amazing skill.
The whole sequence lasted 18 strokes, got Vinci back to deuce, and clearly shook Serena physically and emotionally. Two points later Vinci would break Serena to take a crucial 4-3 third-set lead. She did not look back.
Winning a calendar Grand Slam—28 consecutive victories at four straight Major tournaments in one season—inevitably means having to overcome this kind of challenge several times. That challenge can come from a fellow champion, like Serena’s sister Venus who pushed her to the limit in the quarterfinals. But it can also come from an unheralded underdog who had only previously reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal twice, never previously been in a Major semifinal or cracked the WTA top-10, and just happened to be playing the tournament of her life, as in the case of Vinci.
That these tests come match-after-match at a Major is what makes Graf’s accomplishment so inconceivably hard to replicate. It’s also what make Serena’s accomplishment this past year—winning 33 consecutive Grand Slam matches and four straight Slams between the 2014 U.S. Open and 2015 Wimbledon—almost nearly as impressive as it would have been had she won them all in the same year.