Tennis probably ranks fourth or fifth on my list of favorite sports to watch (with the NFL and NBA up top). As with golf, it is really only the majors that encourage me to tune in when it comes to tennis. I’ll happily leave the set on all day and night during the two weeks of Wimbledon, the French, and the U.S. Open. (Not so much during the Australian, because of the time difference.)
My viewing goes back and forth between passive awareness of how matches are progressing and concluding and active following of every point near the ends of sets or matches.
Today I can’t say I even really paid much attention at all to Flavia Panetta’s quick handling of the No. 2 seed Simona Halep in the day’s first match. I’d seen several of Halep’s matches leading up to today’s, and considering her high seed I’d guessed she was going to be a finalist, so the 6-1 6-3 result was kind of eyebrow-raising.
Then came Serena Williams’s match with Roberta Vinci. I looked up for a while before it began to hear the commentators talk about “David versus Goliath” and speculate how quickly the match would be completed, none thinking for a moment that Williams could possibly lose to the unseeded Italian.
The first set was over in a flash, won by Williams 6-2, and I’d moved fully into passive mode as they moved through the second set. Saw Vinci -- who at age 32 is older than the average player although a year younger than Williams -- was up a break, then watched as she managed to hold on to win that one 6-4, and suddenly I was setting work aside to see what was going to happen next.
The third set was a strange one, with Williams breaking Vinci early to go up 2-0 and seemingly in position to cruise into yet another major final. But Vinci broke back right away and seeing her rallying herself and the New York crowd it suddenly became obvious she wasn’t going to be an easy out. Soon she was up a break, and after Williams missed an opportunity to break back (having a couple of break points to do so), it was all crazily pointing to one of those huge, impossible-to-have-foreseen upsets.
The last game was almost an anticlimax, with Vinci clinching the set 6-4 to stop Williams’s run at the grand slam. Stunningly. The Italian’s post-match interview was terrific. “Today is my day, sorry guys!” she said, and it was impossible not to grin in response.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. After all, Vinci’s name literally means “win.”
Afterwards the commentators tried to find examples from other sports with which to compare the magnitude of the upset, with the usuals (Villanova over Georgetown, Douglas over Tyson, etc.) being highlighted.
From poker I was harkening back to Hal Fowler defeating Bobby Hoff heads-up at the 1979 WSOP as a closer analogue than Moneymaker over Farha. This evening I saw Pamela Maldonado make what was probably an even better comparison over Twitter, bringing up Joe McKeehen’s knockout of Daniel Negreanu two spots shy of the November Nine back in July and noting McKeehen’s similarly sympathetic-while-competitive response afterwards.
The favorite-underdog dynamic makes poker an exciting game, since in every hand the dog still has a chance. In sports, too, it adds a layer of interest as we watch to find out how what happens compares to what was thought would happen. And there, too, do the favorites -- even the greatest ones -- sometimes fall.