Winners don’t need to apologize

Do you believe in miracles?! No!
Roberta Vinci of Italy covers her face with her hands after upsetting Serena Williams in the women's semifinals at the U.S. Open Friday.
Roberta Vinci of Italy covers her face with her hands after upsetting Serena Williams in the women's semifinals at the U.S. Open Friday.

Do you believe in miracles?!


If you’re Roberta Vinci, you don’t. Not in the immediate aftermath of one of the biggest takedowns in tennis history, anyway. Then you apologize. For winning.

Vinci’s massive upset of Serena Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals on Friday sent us all scrambling for comparable

David/Goliath scenarios and the proper historical context.

The first one that came to mind for me didn’t have so much to do with the disproportion of the upset, by an unseeded 32-year-old from Italy whom I’d never heard of until turning on the match midway through the second set.

It was her priceless reaction after beating Serena to stop her Grand Slam attempt that did it for me, when these words issued forth from her flabbergasted and sheepish smile: “Sorry, guys. Sorry.”

That echoed the sentiment expressed by Marylou Whitney after her horse, Birdstone, beat Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes at odds of 36-1.

Marylou said it three times, a genuine apology for spoiling all the fun for everyone.

The universally popular Smarty Jones was trying to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, but Birdstone ruined everything by tracking him down in deep stretch and winning by one length.

How improbable was Vinci’s victory?

One sportsbook had her at odds of 300-1 to beat Serena. Three hundred. You know, like the Spartans.

This was her first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, well-worn terrain for Serena, who will tie Steffi Graf with 22 Grand Slam titles the next time she wins one.

She had won 33 straight Grand Slam matches dating back to last year’s U.S. Open, and was shooting for the first Grand Slam sweep since Graf did it in 1988.

Serena didn’t look like she was having fun out there.

She was fiery and emotional and intense, but there was a grimness to her determination.

During the short post-match interview, it was fruitless trying to gauge her disappointment by anything she said because she refused to answer to it.

“Anyone else want to ask a different question than that?” she said.

Vinci, meanwhile, never fully shed the look of stunned disbelief over what she had done. Wait, that just happened?

Asked by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi about why she apologized, the Italian Vinci, in occasionally fractured English, said, “For the American people, for Serena, for Grand Slam, everything . . . but today is my day. Sorry, guys.”

Rinaldi asked her what made her believe this moment could be possible, and she said, “Try to enjoy, don’t think about Serena. Play. But I don’t expect to win, no.”

Remember when Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in Tokyo in 1990? Buster was 42-1 to win that fight.

In 1982, the Virginia Cavaliers and Ralph Sampson — his last name is “Sampson,” for crying out loud — went to Honolulu with the top-ranked team in the country and an eventual three-time national player of the year, and got beat 77-72. By Chaminade.

It happens.

Nobody was apologizing after that one.

And nobody was apologizing after 16-1 Keen Ice beat American Pharoah in the Travers at Saratoga Race Course two weekends ago.

But Vinci felt compelled to do so because she knew the fans didn’t show up to see her.

They were spending an average of over $1,400 per ticket on the secondary market for today’s final because they wanted to see Serena win the Grand Slam. By Friday night, tickets on StubHub were as low as $75.

Vinci beat Serena by getting her on the run and keeping her there.

After one incredible 18-shot point in the third set, she held her palm to her ear to remind the stadium that it was OK to cheer for her, too.

When it was over, Vinci celebrated, because that’s what you do, but the look of shock on her face never really went away.

It reminded me of the 1972 movie “The Candidate,” in which Robert Redford plays a young candidate running for California governor against an unbeatable incumbent, and Peter Boyle is his campaign manager.

They somehow win this unwinnable election, and the movie ends with Redford looking at Boyle, stunned, and saying, “What do we do now?”

If you’re Vinci, you rally your forces and try to beat countrywoman Flavia Pennetta in today’s final. She eventually admitted that, “every so often, a miracle happens.”

But when Rinaldi asked her, “What will make this real?” she sighed and said, “I don’t know. Tell me another question.”

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