Why you should care
Because this might be the biggest upset since, like, ever.
When was the last time you heard about something in sports that made you gasp? The New York Giants ending the New England Patriots’ perfect season in Super Bowl XLII? The U.S. women winning the World Cup this year? Now, of course, there’s a new one: Serena Williams, on the verge of making tennis history, getting knocked out of the U.S. Open by a totally unknown journeywoman.
Let’s be clear: The loss was every bit as shocking as people are making it out to be. Williams has spent the last 258 weeks as the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world and was chasing the first calendar-year Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988. Then she goes out and loses to Italy’s Roberta Vinci, the 43rd-ranked player in the world, whose previous biggest accomplishment on the Big Court was reaching the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament. Yet as much as this loss hurts, there’s actually a reason tennis is full of such woebegone stories — and we hope it makes Serena feel a little bit better.
It’s in your sport, Serena, and in only a few others, that top players are regularly exposed to their much less competitive competitors. There are 128 spots in each Grand Slam tournament, and with so-called wild-card entries, it’s amazing how many hacks get a crack at world-class athletes like yourself. Consider the time that a 550th-ranked Lleyton Hewitt, then 16, beat the then-great Andre Agassi in 1998. Or just two months ago, Rafael Nadal had to play 102nd-ranked Dustin Brown at Wimbledon … and lost. Obviously, anything can happen on any given day in the sporting world, but such lopsided one-on-one matchups don’t happen in most team sports. After all, you don’t see the Seattle Seahawks lining up against, say, the Scottsdale Fighting Artichokes.
Upsets are rarely as devastating as people make them out to be. World-class athletes like you, Serena, bounce back. In fact, you already have in the past. Out of mercy, we didn’t include them in our list, but you’ve been toppled twice before in similarly shocking ways. (We remember a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova pulling off “the most stunning upset in recent memory,” as the Washington Post termed it; Samantha Stosur did something similar in the 2011 U.S. Open final.) And if it helps you sleep at night, history has proven that the Vincis of the world rarely go much further, often not even past their next match. Most don’t, that is, but not all. Among our list of greatest tennis upsets, we count two (Ashe and King) whose names now grace major tennis stadiums.
- The only British woman to have won titles at all four Grand Slams, Virginia Wade broke through on July 1, 1977, in a three-set victory over Betty Stöve. The real upset, though, was the semifinal match, when the Brit toppled No. 1 seed Chris Evert in a stunner. At the time, she told The Guardian: “Winning Wimbledon was the thing that made my career worthwhile.” For 36 years after that, Virginia Wade was infamously known as the “last British player” to win Wimbledon — all the way to 2013, when Andy Murray finally broke through.
- It didn’t matter that Jimmy Connors was the reigning Wimbledon champion, or that he had a 99-4 record in 1974. As Arthur Ashe said later to the Tennis Channel: “I had the strangest feeling that I couldn’t lose.” And he was right. The 7th-seed player toppled the best tennis player in the land in four sets in 1975, becoming the first Black man to win Wimbledon.
- Give Jimmy Connors his due, though: He emerged on the winning side of the upset calendar when he rode an unlikely hot streak through the 1991 U.S. Open. On the day of his 39th birthday, he somehow eked out a grueling five-set, fourth-round win over Aaron Krickstein, who was 24. While Connors’ run ended in the semifinals, the gutsy match lives on in tennis lore.
- Spanish star Rafael Nadal was so dominant at the French Open in Paris that he hadn’t lost a match there since his debut in 2005. That changed when Nadal met 23rd-ranked Robin Söderling, a Swedish tennis stud who shocked the world by winning in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open in four sets.
- Mark Edmondson was unseeded entering the 1976 Australian Open, meaning he wasn’t even considered good enough to be included with the other contenders. He was ranked No. 212 in the world, but turned in one of history’s great runs by beating John Newcombe in the final. He wouldn’t win another Grand Slam singles title, but did manage doubles championships in 1980, 1981, 1983 and 1984, all at the Australian Open. To this day, he is the last Aussie to win their home singles tournament.
- She was still only Billie Jean Moffitt when she took the court in 1962. In only her second match at Wimbledon, she upset Margaret Court, the World No. 1 and top seed. It was the first time in Wimbledon history that the women’s top seed had lost in the very first round. Moffitt married Larry King in 1965, took his last name and went on to win 12 singles Grand Slam titles. King also famously beat Bobby Riggs, 55, in the so-called Battle of the Sexes (she was 29 at the time) in 1973.