Photo: Dubreuil Corinne/ABACA/Shutterstock
Serena Williams hasn’t won a major tournament in over five years. And heading into this year’s US Open, rumored to be the last event of her illustrious career, it seemed certain she would end up with 23 of them, one down problematic Australian Margaret Court on the eternal list of women. (It should be said that this statistic is far from a foolproof way to determine the greatness of tennis.)
But those who aren’t following the ins and outs of the professional tennis tour — and tuning in now as Serena wows the New York crowds on her heels Quasi-retirement ad in Fashion last month – can’t see how unlikely any Success in Flushing looked like this just a few weeks ago. Her recent performances had scarcely inspired any confidence that a fairytale end to her career was at hand. After spending almost a year recovering from a leg injury, Serena lost in the first round at Wimbledon, a tournament she has won seven times. Last month she lost in straight sets to Belinda Bencic in the second round of the Canadian Open. Then young star Emma Radacanu rolled over her 6-4, 6-0 in Cincinnati at the Western and Southern Open. In those two losses, Serena moved sluggishly and sprayed unforced errors all over the court; they were matches best observed with the fingers. Serena has more than earned the right to end her career any way she chooses, but entering the Open ranked 406th in the world, a dignified but perhaps elusive first-round elimination seemed the most likely to be a result.
Instead, something else goes down. On Wednesday night, in the second round against number 2 Anett Kontaveit, Serena looked – at least in parts – as a feverish crowd roared every time she won a point. like her old self. She ripped backhand winners down the line. She hit her Era-defining first serve with authority. She’s been nailing swinging forehand volleys like she did in 1999 or 2014. (Yes, she’s been that good for so long.) This was a serious step up in the game from just two days earlier when she defeated Danka Kovinic in two unequal sets. A lot of sports clichés came to mind about what defines the greatest athletes – and clichés have earned their reputation because they are true. During her first match on Monday, Serena had to shake off a lot of rust and nerves but, as the saying goes, found a way to victory. And in the third set of Wednesday’s game, when she suddenly pulled away from Kontaveit, she found, as they say, a different gear. Serena feeds on the celebrity-filled New York crowds rather than shying away from them. She can tap into physical and mental reserves that most other athletes don’t have. This is the stuff for everyone pompous watch advertising broadcast during a major tournament. In fact, since Jimmy Connors in 1991, Serena has created perhaps the most electrifying atmosphere in the preliminary rounds at the Open. It was something to watch.
And now it suddenly seems like she might still have a chance at 24. If she keeps upping her game, who will stop her? The women’s game, in strong contrast to the men, has been characterized by predictable unpredictability in recent years – a trend that is very evident in this year’s tournament and could benefit the Serena. Some of the world’s best players were eliminated in the first round, including Raducanu, who won here last year; Naomi Osaka, the champion two years ago; this year’s Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina; and former No.1 Simona Halep, who has been looking impressive lately. Serena’s next opponent is Ajla Tomljanovic in 46th place; If Serena wins, she will face either Liudmila Samsonova or Aleksandra Krunic. Nobody is world champion. Possible ways after that are a quarterfinal match against the Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur or – one can dream – a showdown against the young American phenomenon Coco Gauff in the semifinals. (This one would probably set decibel records at Arthur Ashe Stadium). The most dangerous player in the draw is the No. 1 seed Iga Swiatek, who were on a 37-game winning streak this summer, have experienced a slight lull in their dominance and have now started bulldozing opponents again at the Open. But maybe that’s thinking too many steps ahead.
Even with Serena losing in straight sets on Friday night, she has shown a level of determination and determination that really shouldn’t have been too surprising given what we know about her – but that still feels like a revelation. If she somehow makes it to the end, it will be one of the greatest esports stories of all time. The only problem with this fairytale ending is that it probably won’t be an ending; Knowing that she could still win at the highest level after all these years, Serena would probably have a hard time staying in retirement.