Skip to main content
Menu
Roberta Vinci’s Upset Of Serena Williams Is The Biggest In Modern Women’s Tennis History

After Roberta Vinci, the No. 43 ranked player in the world, defeated No. 1 Serena Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals on Friday, someone asked Vinci if she remembered a bigger upset in women’s tennis. She answered, “No. Just today.”

We took a more quantitative approach and arrived at the same answer. Vinci’s victory was the biggest upset in women’s Open-era tennis history this late in a Grand Slam tournament.

Before the tournament, we used Elo — the ratings system that takes into account players’ match results and quality of opposition and creates power rankings for anything from chess to the NFL — to rate the best women’s tennis players of all time. According to this system, Williams is one of the greatest but not the greatest. (Despite her loss, however, she is still playing well enough to keep building her case.) It’s this system that shows just how historic Vinci’s upset was.


Baseline: A U.S. Open mini-podcast

Carl Bialik and Grantland’s Brian Phillips discuss Roberta Vinci’s upset of Serena Williams and preview the Djokovic-Federer final. For more subscribe to our sports podcast Hot Takedown.


As of Aug. 23,1 Williams’s Elo rating was 2505 and Vinci’s was 1852 — a difference of 652 points.2 That gave Vinci about a 3 percent chance of beating Serena. The biggest previous Elo gap for an upset in a Slam quarterfinal, semifinal or final was 574, when Czech player Helena Sukova beat Martina Navratilova in the 1984 Australian Open semifinals. The upset ended a run of six consecutive Slam titles for Navratilova, who never managed to win a calendar-year Grand Slam.

Sukova’s elation was short-lived. Chris Evert beat her to win the title. And that’s not atypical. The winners in these historic upsets have gone just 1-7 when trying to repeat their feats in the next match at the same event.3

YEAR WINNER LOSER EVENT ROUND ELO DIFF. WINNER’S NEXT MATCH
2015 Roberta Vinci Serena Williams U.S. Open SF 652 ?
1984 Helena Sukova Martina Navratilova Australian Open SF 574 L
1979 Barbara Jordan Hana Mandlikova Australian Open QF 513 W
1994 Mary Pierce Steffi Graf French Open SF 502 L
1989 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario Steffi Graf French Open F 488 N/A
1990 Zina Garrison Steffi Graf Wimbledon SF 473 L
1988 Zina Garrison Martina Navratilova U.S. Open QF 471 L
1999 Amelie Mauresmo Lindsay Davenport Australian Open SF 463 L
2007 Marion Bartoli Justine Henin Wimbledon SF 462 L
1997 Amanda Coetzer Steffi Graf French Open QF 453 L

The real upset is that Vinci made the semifinals at all. These upsets are so rare late in majors because by the quarterfinals or later, both players’ ratings are usually far closer to each others’ than Williams’s and Vinci’s were.

Bigger upsets have happened earlier in majors. Katarina Studenikova’s second-round upset of Monica Seles at Wimbledon in 1996 overcame an Elo gap of 764 points. Williams herself has suffered bigger upsets. Her loss in the third round of Wimbledon in 2005 to Jill Craybas occurred despite a 710-point gap in their Elo ratings.

Men suffer upsets too, despite their best-of-five-set format that gives favorites more chances to come back and assert their superiority. The biggest in a quarterfinal or later was Christophe Roger-Vasselin’s defeat of Jimmy Connors, whose Elo rating was 580 points higher, in the 1983 French Open quarterfinals.

Elo doesn’t capture the stakes of Friday’s upset. Williams’s quest for the Grand Slam made Friday’s result loom larger than most before it. And the upset is even more shocking when you consider that Williams has an extraordinary record late in Grand Slam tournaments. So what happened Friday?

“I thought she played the best tennis in her career,” Williams said in her postmatch press conference about Vinci. ”I think she played literally out of her mind.”

Footnotes

  1. We haven’t yet updated our Elo ratings to include the results of the U.S. Open so far, or of the warmup tournament the week before the Open started in New Haven, Conn. So the numbers we’re basing this on are slightly out of date. Vinci won five tour-level matches and lost one between our last Elo update and today’s upset, so her Elo has risen, although not by enough to undermine her win as the biggest upset in a quarterfinal or later at a Slam. Williams had won five matches, too, since our last Elo update, which would have increased her rating slightly and mitigated the effects of Vinci’s rise.

  2. The numbers don’t add up because of rounding.

  3. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario’s upset of Steffi Graf in the 1989 French Open came in the final, so Sanchez Vicario had no more matches at that tournament.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

Benjamin Morris researches and writes about sports and other topics for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments