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December 11 • 02:04
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Rick's Blog - An Upset for the Ages



May 30, 2012
On an otherwise uneventful day, Serena Williams was responsible for more drama than even she has been responsible for in the past - and she was barely the cause of half of it today. Her opponent, a 29 year old French player ranked #115, was the chief instigator of the drama and the problems, coming both from her racquet in the form of winners and from her mouth as cries of pain.

Who was she? Few have seen play before, if they've even heard of her: Virginia Razzano. You'd be excused for having thought she was Italian before today, if you'd heard of her (I had and did). If you'd seen her serve, you'd recall her as the woman with the flat slap serve reminiscent of French Open champion Francois Durr.

For once, the drama wasn't about Serena's behavior. She crushed balls with consummate assurance through two sets of 'splendid' tennis (adjective reserved for epic encounters, like Budge v Von Cramm, Fed v Rafa), and she moved to retrieve impossible shots with no sign of the ankle worries that led to her withdrawal before the semis of Rome.

She and Virginia traded breaks until Serena won the first 6-4, and the two held in lock step from 2-2 to a tie-breaker. The crowd had invested more as Razzo kept producing brilliant counter-attacks to keep 4erena from taking control of the set, and when she went down 1-5 in the tie-breaker, the crowd was frantic to keep their woman alive. At 5-2, Serena didn't play Virginia's defensive ball that had looked to be going long but wasn't called. She failed to find the mark herself, and accepted the chair's review of the evidence without argument or apparent dismay. She was just as cool when the next point had to be re-played. But after she lost the replay, she made two very nervous errors to give Razzo a set point at 5-6. When their girl won a long exchange with a series of forcing forehands, a thrill and sense of wonder was born anew.

The 3rd set began with Razzo holding quickly and Serena being broken almost at love by her fired up opponent. Razzo then held with a convincing show of nerveless power to go up 3-0.

This couldn't last. Or could it?

Razzo, who was brilliant at first-strike ground strokes, wasn't nearly as good as Serena at finishing long points with winners after she earned weak replies. Surely this would be her undoing, along with Serena's 100 mph forehand returns.

At 0-3 Serena continued to spray backhands on the run and lost at 15 again. With the crowd behind her opponent's every advantage, and her own temper under control, Serena hadn't found the fire to put up two points in a row to stop Razzo's momentum. One began to suspect their was more than method in Razzo's madness when she succeeded in spite of cramps that were clearly bothering her enough at times to make her cry out in pain as she hit (players are unable to call for a trainer for cramps).

With the score 0-5, Serena had won just 5 points (1 per game), and at 30-30 had to finish with that ever so difficult put-away of a floater with her overhead. When she finally won the game she got applause from a crowd that wasn't ready to see the tennis end.

At 1-5 and 30-30, Serena benefited from what might be called the Serena rule since she's the one who's been penalized the most for it: this was when the first of two point penalties was issued against her opponent for interference (noise). Razzo brought it back to deuce but then erred twice to suffer what was clearly the break in momentum Serena needed, if not the turning point.

Holding at 15 for her first easy hold to get within a break put the pressure squarely on her opponent. Razzo was up 5-3 but down to one chance to serve it out. A pair of additional backhand errors put Serena down 0-30, but when her deep get had forced a short ball, she finished with a forehand, which was the only completely reliable thing she did in the last set.

It was at 30-15 that nerves really took over for Razzano: her 2nd serve barely reached the net.

At 30-30, the chair gave Serena another break by once more mistakenly penalizing her opponent for interference during the point, but Serena's backhand was again charitable.

With control in her hands and her opponent cramping, Serena's charity continued, even after a double-fault more horrendous followed on Razzo's 1st match point (she pushed it wide).

A second match point against her went her way when Razzo went for too quick a close and sent a forehand long.

Razzo then had to save another break point, which she did with her 3rd ace (2nd of the game).

With a 2nd serve to her forehand at deuce, Serena earned another break point, only to err when she got an even easier 2nd ball that she would routinely hammer for a winner.

After a second error at deuce, it was a backhand that flew long off Razzo's racquet on match point #3.

At deuce #4 it was Serena's turn to send a forehand return long.

A longer match ball saw both players forcing, but went a 4th time the American's way.

At deuce #5 Serena stood up on a forehand return to mail it cross court to a zip code outside the alley.

A forehand winner brought it back to deuce #6.

A backhand winner off Serena's deep return gave us MP #6. Would it take lucky 7!

Yes - she attempted a dangerous backhand winner down-the-line, missing by an inch and playing again into what should have been Serena's hand: the American has thrived in these tense battles.

When another deuce point went the other way for break point #6, it seemed we'd seen the end of the struggle.

But no. Serena remained out of character and returned the favor.

Match point #7 for Razzo came from - yes - a forehand mailed way wide of the alley after a short exchange.

And that was - not enough. Serena hit a BH winner that hit the sideline.

#8 saw a call go Razzo's way when after a long rally, a deep backhand that seemed to have produced deuce

#13 was challenged successfully by Razzo and awarded by the chair that had done enough already against her.

The upset of the tournament was finished with a game that will be remembered as the most dramatic of the year, an epic on it's own that will be compared for drama with even the Borg-McEnroe 1980 tie-breaker. It was, in fact, just two points shy of the 34 points Borg and Mac played in their breaker. And one woman served the entire game with cramps that called to mind Michael Chang's final set in the last match with such drama played in Paris: his 1989 upset of #1 seed Lendl (though that match was played in only the 4th round, it is what everyone remembers of Chang's only title win).

In the 3rd set, Virginia had served 55 points:

- she got 40 first serves in play to Serena's 21 points

- she won 67% of her 2nd serve points to Serena's 33%, an amazing stat since Serena has the best 2nd

serve on her tour and punishes other's 2nd serves as well anyone)

That it was Serena's first ever loss in the opening round of major is historic, especially given that she was the presumed favorite to win the title this year.

What now for France's new hero, the lowly ranked 29 year old who did what none of the top ranked french men have seemed able to do?

That this was her biggest win ever needed no admission, though her past is not as humble as it sounds: she reached #16 in 2009, and has beaten top 5 players before. But top 5 women come and go these days, while Serena is Serena: supremely confident, and almost impossible to beat in a contest of wills (think Rafa, though asphalt is Serena's surface).

Razzo's past may contain another key to her victory. It was personal tragedy that caused her ranking to tumble after 2009: her fiance lost a struggle with brain cancer. Her positive attitude and perseverance in the toughest moments of the match may have reflected an awareness that tennis is only a game. Of course, Serena's lived through some family losses and difficulties of all kinds, and could also reflect that in the end it was only a lost tennis match.

For the next chapter, wait until Thursday.

Rick

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