The list of U.S. women who’ve already been bounced for one reason or another from the 2021 U.S. Open is long and alarming: Serena and Venus Williams skipped the tournament due to ailments, as did fifth-ranked Sofia Kenin; Coco Gauff was eliminated by Sloane Stephens in the second round; Stephens was eliminated by Angelique Kerber in the third round; Danielle Collins fell to Aryna Sabalenka in the third round; and Jessica Pegula fell to Belinda Bencic. The last American standing was 28-year-old Shelby Rogers, who in order to advance from the third round would only need to upset the top-ranked player in the world, Australia’s Ashleigh Barty, who has beaten her convincingly in each of their last five matches. Incidentally, no American woman had upset a World No. 1 in the opening week of a major in 27 years. No big deal!
Rogers noted after her 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 upset win that she’d spent part of her morning drawing inspiration from a clip of the famous line from Vitas Gerulaitis, who after finally taking a 1979 match off Jimmy Connors following eight years of consecutive defeats boasted to assembled media, “Let that be a lesson to you all: Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!” Rogers estimated a solid half of a journal she keeps full of match notes is full of “lessons” she’s learned from having her ass kicked over and over by Barty, her good pal, and she came into this match determined to put some of that hard-won wisdom to good use.
Key among those lessons was that Barty has tended to get better and better the harder Rogers strikes the ball, which meant that giving herself a chance in this match would mean playing slower and loopier—more deep top-spin shots and more moonballs. That might seem counterintuitive and like a last-ditch long-shot—Rogers described it as “definitely not the way I like to play”—but from the opening it seemed to do the trick. Barty was out of sorts and had a hard time with shots up around her shoulders, and the underdog cruised through a dominant first set. Barty roared back in the second through sheer athletic brilliance and a determination to “find the feeling through pure volume,” but Rogers stuck with the eephus approach suggested by past experience, determined “not to lose the same way I lost the last five times.”
That adorably low ambition—losing, but differently—almost came to fruition. Barty was up 5-2 in the third before a double-fault and then an unforced forehand error “put some oxygen back in [Rogers’s] lungs” and brought the extremely partisan crowd back to life. Rogers stuck with the loopy stuff, Barty lost all her second-set precision, and Rogers closed out her improbable comeback on three lousy Barty returns in the final four points of the third-set tiebreak.
Barty, living the nomad life due to restrictions and logistics having to do with the coronavirus, will now get to return home literally for the first time since February of this year. In losing to Rogers she became the seventh consecutive top seed on the women’s side to miss the U.S. Open Final, tied for the longest such streak in any major in the Open Era, per ESPN. Rogers will move on to face Emma Raducanu Monday, in the round of 16. Probably she will need to get the slow stuff out of her system and go back to pounding the ball—Raducanu is a couple inches taller than Barty, so stuff at Barty’s shoulder level will be squarely in the destruction zone for Britain’s wonderteen—but if she’s got the lessons for upsetting the best player in the world, surely there’s some good notes in the journal for more general applications! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!