In Shakspeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus stabs Caesar. We know that, right? In Oklahoma, Curly gets the girl. And no matter how many endings they considered, if you see the movie Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman gets on the plane. And they always had Paris.
But knowing how things work out, doesn’t stop me wanting to see another production of a Shakespeare play or watching Casablanca for the 20th time. It’s art in its various forms.
Sport is a kind of art, too, and it has one extra, abiding factor which separates it from written or spoken forms of art and which mirrors life – you don’t have a damn clue what’s going to happen next.
Oh, we think we do. That’s why millions of people put trillions of dollars of that horse coming home. Or why a huge number of people must have wagered a couple of bucks on Serena Williams winning the US Open and the Grand Slam that would have gone with it. What did they know? What did any of us know? Nothing.
The way the women’s draw has worked out at Flushing Meadow this year defies all probability, almost all possibility. It’s not just that Serena lost – there was always a small chance that the pressure she was under in chasing something no one had achieved since Steffi Graf in 1988 was going to prove too much for her. But she insists she doesn’t feel pressure and, anyway, it was a very small chance.
But look what we got for a final once Serena had succumbed in the semis. Two Italians – for the first time in the history of tennis. And not just two Italians, which is ridiculous enough, but two over-thirty but clearly not over-the-hill Italians. Two girls who played together as teenagers and won the French junior title. Two very grown up ladies who have played more matches than they can remember and had never, in their wildest dreams, ever considered the absurd possibility of playing each other in a Grand Slam final.
When Roberta Vinci was asked on court minutes after beating Serena, if she had woken up that morning dreaming of beating the world’s greatest player, her retort was “No!”. The Italians have a very emphatic way of saying ‘No!’ It is a short, sharp sound that deserves its exclamation mark. And this exclamation mark was very big.
Earlier, of course, Flavia Pennetta had destroyed the No 2 seed Simona Halep 6-1, 6-3, thus re-writing another stat – the one about the Nos 1 and 2 seeds both losing in the semi-finals of a Slam. If it’s happened, it doesn’t come readily to mind.
Pennetta entered the draw as the No 26 seed while Vinci’s ranking of 43 flung her into the mix against anyone. So what happened to every else? OK, so we lost Maria Sharapova through injury before a ball was struck. But weren’t those talented Serbs Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic looking as if this might be the moment for one of them to make a move; didn’t Caroline Wozniaki look fit and up for it? And, after a couple of impressive rounds, didn’t Sam Stosur remind you of the player who won here in 2011, beating, yes, you remember, Serena in the final? Viktoria Azarenka had her watch commercials plastered all over the freeway 20 foot high, reminding everyone on the way to Flushing Meadow that she was fit and back in business – and proved it with an excellent victory over the ever dangerous Angelique Kerber before losing to Halep. And what of the young ones – Sloane Stephens, improving this year under Nick Saviano’s tutelage; Madison Keys, hitting the ball harder off the ground than most men in the draw, let alone women. But it didn’t help against Serena. 6-3, 6-3.
Sabine Lisicki, the former Wimbledon finalist, looked a threat until she ran into Halep and what about Eugenie Bouchard, suddenly discovering a way to win again during a tough third round victory over Dominika Cibulkova who had put out Ivanovic in the first round. She was due to play Vinci in Round Four and would have gone on court as a regenerated player, starting to believe in herself. But poor Genie slipped on the way to the shower and banged her head so hard she suffered concussion. And couldn’t play.
It has become clear to me over the years that everyone, be it Rod Laver, Billie-Jean King or Pete Sampras, needs a little slice of luck along the way to win a Grand Slam title. And Bouchard’s slip was probably Vinci’s. Not that we would have expected the Canadian to make it all the way to the final. There were all those other players we have been talking about plus the little problem of both Williams sisters lurking in her half.
And so, suddenly, everything opened up. Pennetta touched the best tennis of her long career, which began in 2003, two years after Vinci, by beating Stosur and Petra Kvitova in successive rounds and that took her to the semis. She was not favorite to beat Halep but it turned out to be her easiest match and so, suddenly, the possibility of playing her long time friend in the final became a possibility. But only a remote one. Not a possibility she would have seriously thought about as she showered while Roberta was losing the first set to the great champion out there on Ashe.
But Vinci held her nerves and Serena didn’t. The player who already had the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles in her pocket this year, double faulted twice towards the end and hit forehands wide. Vinci, meanwhile, was trying to blot Serena out of her mind and just play the ball – which she did brilliantly a couple of times right at the finish when she came up with two stunning half volleys. She deserved it. No doubt about that.
But did anyone see it coming — even half of it coming? Even one not so over-the-hill Italian? But two? Ridiculous. And glorious. And wonderful. Because what happened in the women’s draw at this year’s US Open tells you everything you need to know about why we love sport.
You have no idea what’s going to happen next.