Serena Williams nearly tripped as she scrambled to get to the ball on match point. She managed to make contact, but the ball sailed into the net and it was over. Bianca Andreescu became the 2019 US Open champion, and Williams became the runner-up in her fourth straight major final.
The capacity crowd of 24,000, which had been feverishly cheering for Williams throughout the match, now roared for its new queen.
Williams graciously congratulated her opponent — the latest in a string of young players who gushed about pulling off the upset against their childhood hero — but the disappointment was evident on her face, and in her body language. It was a familiar feeling. The winner of 23 Grand Slam titles, Williams had been chasing to match Margaret Court’s record of 24 since returning from the birth of her daughter, Olympia.
“I’ve been definitely proudly stuck here [at 23], party of one,” she said Saturday with the sarcasm apparent in her voice. “I’m pretty happy about it. Obviously I’m never satisfied. That’s been the story of my career.
“So, yeah, it is what it is. I took a year-and-a-half off for a baby. So I don’t know. It’s like I’ll never be satisfied until I retire. I’m never going to stop until I retire. It’s just my personality. That’s how I got to be here.”
Starting with her loss in the title match at Wimbledon in 2018, just months after launching her comeback, and growing increasingly louder with her losses in the finals at the US Open soon after and in the same majors in 2019, fans and analysts have speculated about whether Williams still has what it takes to win in the biggest moments and when the lights shine brightest. And, as she turns 39 in September, even the most die-hard fans know time is running out.
But, with the strangest and most unprecedented US Open upon us, after months of speculation and doubt due to the coronavirus pandemic, could this finally be the major where Williams cements her spot in the record books and silences the naysayers? With six of the top 10 ranked players having withdrawn, and a number of other outside contenders not playing, the field is perhaps more wide open than ever before, and the lack of fans on site could perhaps ease the external pressure. Williams described the crowd-less environment of the Top Seed Open earlier this month as “super relaxing.” It feels as if the stars might be aligning for a Williams victory. Williams begins her pursuit of Slam No. 24 on Tuesday against fellow American Kristie Ahn at Arthur Ashe Stadium (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“When you have players like Ashleigh Barty, the No. 1 player in the world, and Simona Halep, who has won two majors, not playing, that obviously improves her chances,” said Pam Shriver, the 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion and ESPN analyst. “The main thing that I’m interested in for Serena is how not having the crowd will affect her. Given her past at the Open, it might help keep her more calm.
“She certainly has the motivation for history, and we know how much she wants to win another major. I think this all plays into her hands pretty well.”
Known for her activism throughout her career, and having consistently used her voice to push for racial and gender equality, Williams is well aware of the societal moment as well. In the wake of walkouts across sports beginning last week after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, including the pausing of play during the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open, Williams likely will feel as if she’s playing for much more than herself.
Williams, currently ranked No. 8 in the world, will be the No. 3 seed in the tournament, and appears to be the betting favorite alongside Naomi Osaka, who defeated her in the 2018 final. But it won’t exactly be easy. Ahn, who advanced to the fourth round of the 2019 tournament, is her opener, and she could potentially face 2017 champion Sloane Stephens in the third round, then Maria Sakkari or Amanda Anisimova in the fourth, and of course it only gets tougher from there.
Like many players in the draw, Williams had the chance to play competitive tennis on the grounds last week during the Western & Southern Open, moved from its traditional site in Cincinnati to be part of a two-tournament bubble in New York. During her opener, she needed three sets and two tiebreaks to hold off Arantxa Rus in a match that lasted nearly three hours — her longest since 2012. On the brink of losing late in the third set, after squandering a 5-2 lead, she stormed back to force the tiebreak, where she didn’t drop a single point. It was vintage Serena, and proof she still has the fire of a champion, even without the support of the crowd behind her.
“Now I feel like I have passed that test, and now I can pass the test at the Open, playing Ashe Stadium,” she said after the match. “At one point I was pumping my fist and saying, ‘Come on!’ I had a crowd in my head or something. It was actually funny to me. I don’t know. For me, it was like there was a crowd there.”
Shriver thinks the lack of fans will be particularly beneficial if Williams is to advance to the second week of the tournament, when the stakes start to feel higher, but could take away a built-in advantage she typically has in the early rounds.
“Playing Serena in front of 20,000-plus fans on Ashe can be extraordinarily intimidating, and very few people can handle that,” she said. “There are so many players, especially young ones or those not used to playing on the big courts, that just don’t play as well in that situation. So I think it actually might make Serena’s first matches tougher, but if she can get through, it will make the late rounds noticeably easier because the stadium will just be so much calmer and she can just focus on the match against the better players who wouldn’t be as intimidated by the crowd anyway.”
Williams got a taste of playing a strong opponent in the round of 16 at the Western & Southern Open when she faced Sakkari, ranked No. 21 in the world, the day after her marathon match against Rus. This time it felt as if she could have used the help from the crowd during the tightest moments.
She sprinted out to a 5-2 lead in the opening set, and held on to take it despite a surge from Sakkari. Williams had a chance to win the match in the second set, but Sakkari fought back to force a tiebreak, and then overcame an early 4-1 deficit to force a decider. In the third set, Williams looked lifeless and defeated. She won just one game.
It was clear she was disappointed by her performance, and by her inability to close it out.
“I’ve just got to start learning how to win big points,” she said later. “It was literally one point since January. One point I could have won so many more matches, literally. So if I could just focus on how to win that one point, that would be better.”
Since the tennis season resumed earlier this month, Williams has been pushed to deciding sets in all five of her matches. Including her last match before the shutdown, a Fed Cup qualifier in February, she has six straight three-setters — the longest streak of her career. In contrast, in the previous four majors in which she advanced to the final, Williams went the distance in just five matches total.
Of course, that might not be a cause for concern. Williams could ultimately benefit from having so many tough tests before the main event, and she is known for playing her best tennis at Slams. And having had the long six-month layoff and then playing in two tournaments in a short amount of time, it might be better for Williams to give her body a rest before starting what she hopes is a long run at the US Open.
In previous years, she has had to fulfill sponsorship obligations in the days leading up to the tournament, which frequently take place in various Manhattan locations. But that is not the case this year. Instead she was planning to spend the days off practicing and spending time with her family at their private housing, and not much else. With so many restrictions in place, Shriver believes it simplifies the fortnight for Williams in many ways and lets her concentrate on tennis and tennis only.
“She has become a pop culture icon, and now the celebrity piece of this gets taken off her plate,” Shriver said. “She doesn’t have to worry about Meghan Markle or Beyonce wanting to come to her match. She is only allowed to have three people with her on site, and that might just make it so much easier for her. The distractions are eliminated.”
Will all of these factors be enough to propel Williams to No. 24? It’s impossible to say. Even with the absence of several of the top-ranked players, the field is exceptionally deep, and the WTA tour has been full of surprise winners over the past few years. But perhaps Sakkari, her opponent from last week, said it best.
“I mean, obviously she’s, like, the GOAT,” Sakkari said after their match. “I’m not the only one saying that. Having her on the tour still, it’s incredible. We are extremely lucky to have her.”