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Why Serena’s loss is one of the biggest upsets in sports history

Winner of this year's French Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon, Serena Williams seemed poised to clinch a spectacular Grand Slam triumph at the U.S. Open. But her hopes were dashed Friday when Roberta Vinci of Italy defeated the 21-time majors champion in a stunning upset. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Christine Brennan of USA Today.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When Serena Williams took to the court this afternoon, her match was expected by many to be one more victory on the road to a spectacular Grand Slam triumph.

    Williams had won all three prior major titles this year, the French Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon. She defeated her sister, Venus, in a tough match earlier this week. But her opponent, unseated Roberta Vinci of Italy, dashed the hopes of the 21-time major champion in a stunning upset.

    Serena was going for history and trying to become the first woman to win a Grand Slam, all four majors in the same season, since Steffi Graf last did that in 1988.

    Christine Brennan of USA Today and a commentator for ABC News joins us now.

    We were all watching. What happened?

  • CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today:

    Yes, exactly. What happened?

    Well, Vinci happened. And one of the biggest upsets, Hari, we have ever seen in sports, men or women's, any sport around the world happened, one of the biggest. I'm not saying it's the biggest. But Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson in 1990. You have had upsets in golf. Of course, people remember the U.S. beating the Soviets in hockey at the Olympics in 1980.

    I don't know where that ranks That, to me, is always going to be the biggest. But in terms of a story that had been building not just for the last week-and-a-half, almost two weeks of the U.S. Open, but all summer, as we have been looking at the stories of American Pharoah and Jordan Spieth, and we have been talking Grand Slams and Triple Crowns, and here comes Serena just blazing the trail with the Australian, the French, Wimbledon.

    And she is at her home tournament. Wow. No one ever saw this coming.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Why did it happen? Did she play poorly? Did Vinci play better?

  • CHRISTINE BRENNAN:

    Well, she ran into someone who, in the third set, was able to play better and stand up to Serena, and not let Serena do what she always does, which is come back at the end.

    Serena has had an emotional run through the U.S. Open. By that, I mean fantastic player hitting 100 miles, 200 — 120-mile-per-hour serves. But in terms of having her emotions get — she's a smart woman. She gets it. We saw it with Venus, trying to beat her sister. That's tough anyway.

    But this week especially, this moment, the idea of winning a Grand Slam, first man or woman to do it since '88, it was weighing on her. And I think we finally saw in that third set with the double faults. Just those things she needed to muster, those things she needed, to pull out that energy and be able to do it one last time, and she couldn't.

    All credit to her opponent, but this also was Serena's loss. There's no doubt about that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And we're taking a long look at this specific loss, but where is she in the pantheon of tennis players, even besides this loss?

  • CHRISTINE BRENNAN:

    Well, I think she's the greatest female tennis player of all time. And, frankly, I think she's the greatest female athlete of all time, Serena Williams.

    And that doesn't change with what happened today. I just — with the power and the strength and the durability — she will be 34 in two weeks. Steffi Graf, we thought, was old. Steffi retired at 30.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Wow.

  • CHRISTINE BRENNAN:

    Here's Serena playing her best tennis almost 34 years old. That is remarkable.

    The toughest day in women's sports is today, until tomorrow. The competition is so strong. And that's why I think Serena is the best of all time.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And this is one of the reasons, I guess, that we like sport, because there is this possibility that the upset could happen.

    And even in the press conference — or I guess in the on-court interview after, Vinci was — you had to love her.

  • CHRISTINE BRENNAN:

    Yes. Oh, yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Because she didn't wake up thinking she was going to win this morning.

  • CHRISTINE BRENNAN:

    No. I didn't — she had no chance either. She said "Sorry," like apologizing to a whole nation for ending this storyline.

    The old adage is, this is why they play the game. And this is absolutely it. And it's — sports is the best realty TV showing going. It is the best thing about — the greatest escape we can have. And a day like today proved it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Christine Brennan, thanks so much.

  • CHRISTINE BRENNAN:

    Hari, thank you.

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