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Why Serena Williams's US Open loss is so stunning

Serena Williams, serving one of the most difficult matches of her career.
Serena Williams, serving one of the most difficult matches of her career.
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Well, it's official: Serena Williams, the number one tennis player in the world and the sport's most dominant player for nigh on 15 years now, will not win the US Open.

Her loss in Friday's semifinal against Italian player Roberta Vinci (2-6, 6-4, 6-4) was stunning — almost literally, for the 20,000 people in Arthur Ashe Stadium and the millions watching at home and online. Yes, upsets happen, but Williams not making the US Open was hardly even considered as a possibility. 2015 even marks the first year that the women's finals sold out before the men's. Everyone was waiting to see not if Williams would win, but how.

Here's why this loss will go down as one of the most stunning upsets in sports history.

Serena Williams is in a league of her own

Day Twelve: The Championships - Wimbledon 2015

Serena Williams and her 2015 Wimbledon trophy.

Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

While there are smaller matchups throughout the year, the four major tournaments in tennis are the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open (in that chronological order). Overall wins are counted as "Grand Slam" titles. These tournaments are played on different court surfaces: The French Open has clay courts, Wimbledon has grass, and the Australian and US Opens are both played on hard courts. As such, players who can compete at high levels on all three surfaces are both rare and prized.

It could be said that Williams favors hard courts, but her dominance proves she could wipe the floor with just about anyone, on any surface. Sure, there have been some dips and injuries along the way, but for the most part, Williams has been an unstoppable force.

The numbers are astonishing. Her career has spanned 16 years, from her first Grand Slam win in 1999 at age 17 to her win at Wimbledon earlier this year, at age 33. Out of the 25 major finals she reached, she has won 21: six each at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian, and three at the French. By contrast, the leader in men's tennis is Roger Federer, who has won 17.

There are eight other active women's players who have won majors — and it takes all eight of them combined to match Williams's 21 titles.

To put it mildly: The odds of beating Serena Williams at her own game are not great.

Williams's command of the game has been so total that her winning has become noteworthy just because it's felt so inevitable. You could feel her opponents steeling themselves as they walked onto the court opposite her. Beating Serena Williams — even just for a set, if not the match — is a particular point of pride.

This holds especially true for Vinci, the woman who just knocked Williams out of the US Open. In her post-match interview, Vinci was visibly shocked, and often at a loss for words. Eventually, she came out with it: "I didn't expect that I [would win]."

And frankly, she shouldn't have.

Williams was thisclose to winning tennis's most coveted prize: the calendar year Grand Slam

Williams won all three of the previous majors this year. Her game has been practically impenetrable, and so her advancing to the US Open finals seemed like a lock — as did the possibility of her winning one of the only honors in tennis she hasn't already secured.

The "calendar year Grand Slam" is when a player wins all four majors in the same year. The last woman to achieve this was Steffi Graf in 1988. (Graff is also the only woman with more major titles than Serena, at 22 total.) Williams was one US Open away from winning this coveted title. Losing this semifinal, though, essentially means starting over.

This calendar year Grand Slam win for Williams would have meant more than just the number


Serena Williams at the 1999 US Open.

Photo by Mark Sandten/Bongarts/Getty Images

The pressure on Williams to win was incredible, and Vinci took advantage. Where Williams often seemed tight, Vinci leapt around the court with impressive focus, charging after the tennis balls Williams slammed over the net. When discussing the win, Vinci admitted that she could only perform as well as she did because she made herself forget that her opponent was Williams. She also, however, acknowledged that her win meant an incredible loss for Williams, tennis, and her fans. "I'm sorry," Vinci said immediately after winning, and when pressed on it later, she elaborated: "for the American people, for Serena, for the Grand Slam, and everything."

Despite her on-court dominance, Williams's road has not been easy. Her initial rise in tennis came with an ugly side of racism and sexism, as fans and commentators alike warily eyed her and her sister Venus — these young, black women with cornrows who dared infiltrate a sport traditionally dominated by white people. Racially charged descriptions of the sisters have followed them their entire careers. Last year, Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpischev called them "the Williams brothers."

Richard Williams, their father and coach, was even accused of fixing the matches Venus and Serena ended up playing against each other. After Venus pulled out with an injury before their Indian Wells semifinals in 2001, Serena was booed at the final by the suspicious crowd. Williams, devastated, subsequently boycotted the tournament until this year, and only rejoined after acknowledging how painful she found that moment:

The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The under­current of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.

In the same Time piece, she also wrote frankly about how she has been perceived in the tennis world, and how she let her astonishing tennis speak for itself:

As a black tennis player, I looked different. I sounded different. I dressed differently. I served differently. But when I stepped onto the court, I could compete with anyone.

Serena Williams has dominated this sport — so much that I've almost run out of ways to say "dominated" even just in this article — but her ascendancy has also meant incredible visibility for black women athletes. It's 2015, and thin, white, blonde players like Maria Sharapova still make millions more in endorsement deals than Williams, despite failing to measure up to her athletically. Williams's incredible prowess in the face of the cultural odds stacked against her has inspired a generation of minority women who have been told they don't belong.

Serena Williams wanted this calendar year Grand Slam — but she was far from the only one.

This one loss doesn't negate Williams's incredible career

2015 French Open - Day Fourteen

Serena Williams with her 2015 French Open trophy.

Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

And really, how could it? The statistics, her powerful playing, and the ways in which she's changed the face of women's tennis all speak for themselves. So yes, this is a disappointment, but it shouldn't overshadow the scope of her career to date.

And she's not even finished yet.

Okay, but is this Drake's fault?

In their grief, some have blamed Drake — rumored to be dating Williams — for the loss.

But no, it's not Drake's fault.

Well, probably not.

The truth is out there.

Correction: Edited to reflect that Williams was 17, not 19, when she won the 1999 U.S. Open.

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