NEW YORK: For Serena Williams first 26 matches at major tournaments in 2015, no deficit was too daunting, no opponent too troublesome, no victory too far from reach.
She was unbeaten and, seemingly, unbeatable, nearing the first Grand Slam in more than a quarter-century.
All Serena needed was two more wins to pull off that rare feat. And yet, against an unseeded and unheralded opponent in the US Open semi-finals, she faltered.
Her pursuit of history ended, oh so close.
In one of the most significant upsets in the history of tennis, Serena finally found a hole too big to climb out of, losing 6-2, 4-6, 4-6 on Friday at Flushing Meadows to 43rd-ranked Roberta Vinci of Italy.
Vinci had never before played in a Grand Slam semi-final. She had never so much as taken a set off Williams, much less won, in four previous matchups.
But her style, full of slices and net rushes, kept Serena off-balance enough to cause problems and prevent the 33-year-old American from becoming the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a single season.
Serena had been pushed to the limit before this was her 12th three-setter in a major this season but had managed to win titles at the Australian Open on hard courts in January, the French Open on clay courts in June, and Wimbledon on grass courts in July.
This time, for once, the top-ranked Serena could not pull it out.
So instead of Williams, Vinci will play in Saturday’s final. She will face another Italian making her Grand Slam final debut: 26th-seeded Flavia Pennetta.
Pennetta crushed Romanian second seed Simona Halep 6-1, 6-3 to kick off a packed day of action with a stunning upset to reach her first Grand Slam final.
Pennetta, 33, entered the contest as the clear underdog but she showed her experience and was not overwhelmed on the big stage having reached at least the quarter-finals at Flushing Meadows in six of the last seven years.
“It’s amazing. I didn’t think to be so far in the tournament,” said Pennetta. “Today I think I played really well.”
After rain forced officials to postpone the women’s semi-finals by a day, the clash had an undercard vibe to it as it preceded the match featuring Serena, who is two wins away from sweeping the year’s four Grand Slams.
Pennetta, playing in her 49th Grand Slam, needed 59 minutes to get by Halep and secure a long-awaited berth in the final of one of the sport’s four blue riband tournaments.
Aside from her US Open resume there was little to hint at a US Open final by Pennetta, who by her own admission had an unimpressive run-up to the year’s final Grand Slam that included second-round exits in Toronto and Cincinnati and a first-round loss in New Haven.
“I just tried to play every match the best I can from the first one. Try not to think too much about the draw, just play match by match,” Pennetta said after her win.
“I tried to be focused on what I have to do all the time when I get on the court and here I am, so I’m very happy.”