Serena Williams never admitted she felt pressure during her match against Roberta Vinci in the 2015 U.S. Open semifinals. She might feel differently about that Saturday afternoon, right about the time Vinci takes on Flavia Pennetta in an all-Italian women's final.
Vinci upset Williams 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, in front of a stunned crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
As devastating as this defeat is for Williams, now that she no longer has the pressure of trying to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam, she may find it easier to eclipse Steffi Graf's record of 22 Slams. Winning one more Grand Slam before retirement is far easier than trying to win four in one year.
Perhaps Williams can move forward and play matches the way Vinci did Friday, with nothing to lose. Except for a double-fault on break point in the third set, Vinci looked relaxed and carefree. That's the way it is for players who are 300-1 odds to win it all, per USA Today. Prior to this match, Vinci had yet to even take a set off Williams in their previous four meetings. ESPN Tennis noted Serena's loss "should not define" her incredible year:
According to the U.S. Open's official website, after the match, a subdued-looking Williams told reporters that was the best she's ever seen Vinci play.
"I thought she played the best tennis in her career. You know, she's 33, and you know, she's going for it at a late age. So that's good for her to keep going for it and playing so well. Actually, I guess it's inspiring. But, yeah, I think she played literally out of her mind."
Williams probably can't remember what it feels like to be the underdog. For the past five years she's been expected to win every match she enters. Most of the time, she does.
With the dreaded first week behind her, everything seemed to be playing out in her favor. All of her archrivals were out of the tournament. Pennetta took out Simona Halep, who had defeated Williams last year and had given her some trouble in Miami earlier this year.
When Williams took the court, she only needed to defeat two women, whom she had a combined 11-0 record against. Get by these two women whom you've never lost to before and you make history.
It seemed so simple. Yet, the simplicity of it all may have added more pressure. Now not only was she expected to win, but the prize also appeared to be in the bag. How could she lose?
Williams insisted she didn't feel pressure at anytime during the tournament. Somewhat annoyed by the question in the press conference, Williams responded to reporters, "I told you guys; I don't feel pressure. I never felt pressure. I don't know. I never felt that pressure to win here. I said that from the beginning."
She said something similar last year when she was trying to tie Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18 Grand Slams. Coming off an amazing 2013 in which she won 11 titles, including two Slams, and went 78-4, many expected Williams to steamroll the WTA Tour. Yet until the 2014 U.S. Open, she couldn't even advance beyond the fourth round.
After winning the 2014 U.S. Open, Williams seemed to relax and get back to enjoying tennis. Despite struggling in three-set matches, her confidence returned, and so did the winning.
There's a reason only five people in tennis history have the calendar-year Grand Slam. It's hard. And all of them achieved it before there was social media and a slew of all-sports networks, including the Tennis Channel. Even in the pre-blogosphere era, Graf told Bob Carter of ESPN that after winning the calendar Slam she felt more "relief" than joy.
Williams can claim there was no pressure, but how do you handle being on the cover of multiple magazines at once, Gatorade commissioning murals in your honor and professional athletes from around the globe paying tribute to what they believe will be your crowning achievement?
Her mother, Oracene Price, told ESPN's Jane McManus that she thought the pressure may have gotten to her daughter. "I just feel for her because I know she wanted it and couldn't play her best; that's disappointing...I think she was just really tight and couldn't muster through it today."
Of course she felt pressure. She certainly didn't buckle under the weight of Vinci's powerful serve. Yes, the Italian played a masterful match. But anyone who has watched Williams over the years could sense how pensive and pent-up she was.
Perhaps later, after the sting of the loss wears off, Williams will admit to feeling the pressure, just as she did after winning the U.S. Open last year when she told Howard Fendrich of the Associated Press (h/t the Christian Science Monitor), "After Wimbledon, I was just so disappointed. I also realized I just needed to relax a little more. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I don't have to put pressure on myself."
When talking about pressure, Williams often quotes Billie Jean King's saying, "Pressure is a privilege." She also likes to say, "I have nothing to lose."
In 2016, she'll be right, and with nothing to lose, Williams is poised to win, and win again.