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The Giant Foam Finger: If Serena Williams Loses, Is It Still The U.S. Open?

Serena Williams serves to Roberta Vinci during their Women's Singles Semifinals match of the 2015 US Open on Friday.
Alex Goodlett
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Getty Images
Serena Williams serves to Roberta Vinci during their Women's Singles Semifinals match of the 2015 US Open on Friday.

When Gene Demby and I were planning this week's sports discussion, we didn't say, "We should sit down Monday to discuss the U.S. Open." We'd planned to discuss Serena Williams, the most dominant player in women's tennis, who was expected to complete a rare Grand Slam in Saturday's final. (To win a Grand Slam, a player must win the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in a single calendar year. The last woman to accomplish the feat was Steffi Graf in 1988, though Williams had technically won all four majors in a row leading up to this year's U.S. Open.)

But Williams ended up losing in a shocking upset Friday, falling to unranked Italian Roberta Vinci. This set up an all-Italian final match between Vinci and fellow underdog Flavia Pennetta, who'd shocked another dominant player, the No. 2-ranked Simona Halep, en route to the final. Suddenly, what looked like a history-making coronation was a battle of little-known underdogs — two women who'd known each other since childhood, and were at the tail-end of their careers. (Pennetta announced her retirement shortly after winning.)

So instead of talking about Serena Williams for an entire segment, Gene and I examine the double-edged sword that is rooting for an underdog, lament sports announcers' insistence upon psychoanalyzing athletes, and try to unpack what makes us root for and against dynasties in sports. Along the way, we take on the myth of athletes winning because they believe in themselves — when Vinci was asked when she realized she might actually beat Williams, Vinci replied, "Never" — and even spend a minute or two acknowledging Sunday's gripping men's final between top-ranked powerhouses Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)

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