How Roberta Vinci did the unimaginable in defeating Serena Williams at last US Open

Women's No. 7 Roberta Vinci fights pressure on the court, but not always from opponents. ESPN's Prim Siripipat finds out what she does to overcome it and what it took to advance at the US Open.

As part of a series looking at the mind, body and soul of an athlete, ESPN's Prim Siripipat will speak to various tennis players throughout the US Open.

NEW YORK -- A year ago, Roberta Vinci pulled off one of the most epic upsets in US Open history.

The No. 43-ranked Italian stunned No. 1 Serena Williams in the semifinals, ending Williams' 33-match winning streak in majors -- and her quest for the first calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf's feat in 1988.

After the match, Vinci was emotional, calling it the best moment of her life. Beforehand, it was a much different story. Did she really believe she could beat Williams heading into it?

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Serena Williams didn't appear to have her usual confidence in her US Open semifinal against underdog Roberta Vinci, losing 6-2, 4-6, 4-6.

"No. Really! No ..." Vinci said in her on-court interview. "When I woke up, I said 'OK, I have the semifinals today. Try to enjoy it. Don't think about Serena. Play.'"

Although it was a painful defeat, Serena acknowledged the 12-1 underdog played her heart out.

"I thought she played the best tennis in her career," Serena said. "Actually, I guess it's inspiring. But, yeah, I think she played literally out of her mind."

Added Vinci: "The power of the mind and the mental game is important for this kind of sport."

This past Wednesday, that positivity was evident again when Vinci, 33, was down a break in the second set of her second-round match.

With American Christina McHale, 24, leading 3-2, the now No. 7 seed maintained her focus and turned a difficult moment into an opportunity. Vinci won four straight games on her way to a 6-1, 6-3 victory.

Vinci faced another test of will Friday in her three-set win over Carina Witthoeft, 21, of Germany. Despite dropping the second set, the Italian kept her concentration and made only five unforced errors in the third set, winning 6-0, 5-7, 6-3.

Up next in the fourth round, she will face Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine.

Indeed, it was the fiery Italian's mind that enabled her to take down the most intimidating player on the WTA Tour in Serena Williams last year.

She offered espnW these mental tips on how to handle a daunting opponent:

1. Forget your opponent.

Don't think about who's on the other side of the net. Forget their name. Forget their ranking. Forget their résumé and who they've beaten. Shift your focus from your opponent to you. "Think about your game," Vinci said. "Don't think about the opponent. Just play your game and be aggressive."

2. Focus on your breath.

As in yoga teaching, breathing helps a player stay in the present moment, which prevents them from thinking about past mistakes or looking too far ahead into the match. Slow, deep breaths also help with nerves and pressure, which happens to all players.

When asked how often she gets nervous, Vinci said, "Always. I always feel the pressure. I'm always nervous ... every single match and especially at the beginning. Then, step by step, I try to calm down, focus and the pressure gets low, and then I get back into the match."

3. Forget about the future.

This means don't worry about winning or losing. Yes, as a competitor, of course you want to win. However, getting too wrapped up in results can cause more stress and cause an athlete to lose focus on the things that will help them earn a victory.

"Stay focused every single point and don't think about the results," Vinci said. "Just play your game."

4. Think positive.

Her belief may have fluctuated, but Vinci stayed positive throughout the entire match regardless of what was happening.

With that said, it begged the question to ask Vinci one more time about the trust in herself. Did she really not believe she could beat Williams? Not even a little bit?

"OK, a little bit. A little bit ... yes," Vinci said.

Just a little bit of belief. That's all it takes.

Prim Siripipat joined ESPN as an anchor in 2011 after spending three years in Miami covering the Dolphins, Heat and Marlins. She has appeared on SportsCenter, First Take, NBA Tonight and ESPN Radio. She played tennis at Duke University and, shortly after, began a career in broadcasting in Raleigh, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @ESPNPrim.

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