Barbara Barker is an award-winning sports features writer and columnist who has covered sports in New York for
Serena Williams has never done anything in a small, quiet way.
So perhaps we shouldn't be shocked by how she failed in her bid to make sports history this week. We shouldn't be shocked that she would bow out of the most important tournament of her storied career in the most spectacular and unexpected of fashions.
But we are. Walking into Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday to watch two journeywomen Italians play in the final was a bit like walking into a wedding where everyone is still trying to piece together what happened at the bachelor party the night before. The fact that Williams wasn't there, the fact that she lost to the unranked Roberta Vinci in the semifinals Friday and was not on the court Saturday to finish her bid to become the first player since 1988 to complete a calendar Grand Slam, was the prime topic of conversation.
And for good reason.
"It is the biggest upset in the history of tennis," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver told Newsday. "Given Serena's record in major semis and finals, given who she was playing, given that it all happened while going for the calendar Grand Slam. For me, I can't think of another match that approaches this."
Yes, history was made at the U.S. Open this week. It just wasn't the kind of history that everyone expected.
Shriver believes that Williams, who has won 21 major singles titles, is the greatest woman to play the game. But she also believes she ultimately cracked under the weight of trying to accomplish what so few have.
"She said she wasn't feeling it. None of us believe it," said Shriver, who won a calendar Grand Slam playing doubles with Martina Navratilova in 1984. "I can tell you from a doubles standpoint, we felt it trying to win it. There is no doubt she felt the pressure. And if she's saying she didn't, she was just trying to get herself into a state where she didn't. She played tight, tentative and uncomfortable."
Still, Williams has been so dominant that few, including Shriver, believed that she was in trouble when she dropped the second set of her match against Vinci. In retrospect, Shriver believes she should have, simply because Williams had been flirting with danger all year.
Heading into the U.S. Open, Williams had played nine Grand Slam matches in which she had to go to three sets to close it out. At the Open, she needed three sets to eliminate Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the third round and her sister Venus in the quarterfinals.
"To lose seven sets? That's like losing 5 1/2 matches," Shriver said. "How long can she live on this edge? I said that on Friday. If you look at how many times she's been able to pull it out, it's no wonder it caught up to her. Her serve wasn't looking as dependable. That's always been her go-to.
"It's been exhausting just to watch her try to get this Grand Slam, given all the set losses and all the pressure."
Shriver doesn't believe that the 33-year-old Williams will ever be in a position to do this again. It's just too hard and too many things have to break right. Still, Shriver also believes she is the greatest player to play the game, a concept that's hard to quibble with given the impact she's had on her sport both on and off the court.
Said Shriver: "Would winning have been the ultimate thing to do in her sport? Yes. But I don't think it's going to change how people view her in history. It was a surprising loss. It might be the most famous loss. But in the end of the day, I don't think it will mean much."