US Open: Serena Williams chases Margaret on home court
No stadium on earth has embraced a single athlete quite like the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York – the largest tennis arena in the world, no less – has with Serena Williams.
Even Roger Federer’s opponents receive the odd standing ovation on Centre Court in Wimbledon and Sachin Tendulkar had to face the rare boo at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. But the love for Williams at the Arthur Ashe Stadium is absolute and impeccable. She could threaten to shove a ball down a lineswoman’s throat (2009) or hijack someone else’s glory (2018), the fans at Ashe will still remain loyal.
It was hardly a surprise then, that when the United States Tennis Association announced its contentious decision to go ahead with this year’s US Open in mid-June (even as the pandemic showed no signs of slowing down in the country), Williams was its face.
Amidst a sea of star withdrawals (Federer, Rafael Nadal, Simona Halep, Ashleigh Barty), Williams was the first high-profile confirmation.
This year’s US Open is not a regular Grand Slam and as many tennis pros have publicly expressed, it doesn’t feel much like a major either. In its modified state, there will be no singles qualifiers, no mixed doubles and the doubles draw has been halved as well.
Add to all that the total lack of fans – key to giving Grand Slams a high-profile feel, especially so in New York which houses the 23,000-seater showcourt in Ashe – and the 2020 Open could well be a glorified national championships, as Williams’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou put it.
Within this unusual setting, Williams, 38, will revive her bid to win that historic (and thus far elusive) 24th Grand Slam singles title. She has been one shy of the all-time Slam record, held by Australia’s Margaret Court, for nearly four years now.
Were Williams to tie Court in New York this fortnight, it will have an eerie sense of déjà vu – 11 out of the Aussie’s 24 majors were won at home in Australia, at a time when the Aussie Open was a glorified national championships as well (players didn’t quite travel all the way Down Under back then).
Also similar are the circumstances surrounding Court’s 24th and Williams’ pursuit of No. 24. The Australian rewrote the record books at the 1973 US Open—then played on grass—after having her first child. That edition of the US Open, with it being the first Grand Slam to hand out equal prize money to male and female players against the backdrop of the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ exhibition matches, was as unprecedented as this closed-door event.
Court’s march towards the trophy was made far less challenging after her biggest rival and two-time defending champion, the top-seeded Billie Jean King, was dumped out in the third round even as Court first faced a seeded player in the quarters. A similarly smooth carpet has been laid out for Williams with all the withdrawals – neither the world No 1, Barty, nor the defending champion Bianca Andreescu will be there – making the 2020 US Open her best bet to finally stop chasing history, and create it instead.
Due to a blend of the pandemic and injuries, the women’s draw is missing six top-10 players, and a total of 23 players from the top-100. But the three remaining women from the top-10 (No.3 Karolina Pliskova, No.4 Sofia Kenin and No.10 Naomi Osaka) will take solace in the fact that each of them know what it is like to beat Williams at the majors, with all of them having registered a win or two since Serena’s last Slam title. Osaka, of course, did so in a Slam final, here at the US Open in 2018, where she braved 23,000 booing spectators. But even she is “stressed” to turn up fit for this US Open, having withdrawn from the Western & Southern Open final on Saturday due to a hamstring injury. None among Pliskova, Kenin and Osaka have a losing record to the great Williams, but beyond them the field doesn’t quite have the same depth.
That’s not to say Williams already has one hand on the trophy. Not with this Williams anyway.
When Williams defeated her elder sister Venus to win the last of her 23 majors at the 2017 Australian Open, it would have taken a brave person to predict the future that has since unfolded. Yet, here we are in September 2020, nearly 44 months later, and the Slam count has remained static. Between then and now, she became a mother in September 2017 and returned to the tour in March 2018, promptly making four out of six Grand Slam finals.
But the steely menace wasn’t quite there – in her once-brutal baseline game as well as in her mind. At her long and incredible peak, she was akin to the great Australian cricket team in terms of owning that heady mixture of consistency and intimidation. The new Williams is far more unpredictable, a little like today’s Pakistan side. When she blows hot the opponent still stands no chance, but a hot streak is often capped by a cold show when it matters.
In each of her last four Grand Slam final losses, Williams has lost in straight sets. A younger and fitter Williams would never have let that happen. But the very fact that her first Grand Slam title was registered in the 1990s should tell you just how remarkable it is that she is still consistently featuring in the second Saturday of a major, almost a quarter of a century later.
The inconsistency is a worry, especially in 2020, and it has been evident since the beginning of this pandemic-curtailed year. Days after winning her first title in three years in Auckland, Williams lost to China’s Qiang Wang in the third round of the Australian Open. And ever since, the upsets have come thick and fast – to Shelby Rogers at the 2020 Lexington Open, her first loss to a player outside of the top-100 in eight years, followed by a loss to Maria Sakkari in the tune-up in New York.
“It’s like dating a guy that you know sucks,” she said of the ‘bad situations’ she gets herself in these days. “That’s literally what I keep doing out here. It’s like I have to get rid of this guy. It just makes no sense. It’s frustrating.”
It will be frustrating, when she walks on to court to face her first-round opponent in Kristie Ahn, who would’ve taken enough inspiration from recent events to not be intimidated the way Williams’ first-round opponents once used to be. It will be frustrating, when Williams looks around the Arthur Ashe stands and sees nothing but empty seats, all of them bereft of her most vocal supporters in the world.
But beyond those many frustrations lies her golden chance at restoring her aura of old. She is already the greatest women’s player of all time, and two weeks from now she could well have the numbers to go with that crown.