How to Watch Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, Where She Has Nothing Left to Prove
By Gerald Marzorati August 30, 2020
The United States Tennis Association’s decision to proceed with this year’s U.S. Open, which begins on Monday, means, among other things, that Serena Williams will get another chance to win her twenty-fourth major and tie the record set nearly fifty years ago by the Australian great Margaret Court. It could be Williams’s best shot. Six of the top eight women’s players in the world are not competing: some are injured; some are wary of travelling to New York during the global coronavirus pandemic. In all, nineteen of the top hundred players have chosen to stay home; it will be a historically thin draw. Williams, who is now ranked ninth in the world, finds herself one of the top four seeds. It’s clear that she understands the opportunity. Williams spent much of the early summer practicing on a court built in her back yard in Florida that has the same Laykold-brand surface that is being used for the first time this year on the hard courts in Flushing, Queens, in New York. Earlier this month, she journeyed to a tiny new tournament in Lexington, Kentucky, to get in some match play, winning two long three-setters before losing a third to Shelby Rogers, an American ranked outside the top hundred. On Tuesday, at the Western & Southern Open—which was moved this year from its home in Mason, Ohio, to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, in Flushing, so that players could remain in the same lockdown bubble for that tournament and the U.S. Open immediately afterward—she lost in the round of sixteen to Maria Sakkari, of Greece, after winning the first set and going up 4–1 in the second. She was drubbed in the deciding set, 6–1, having stopped stepping into her forehand, stopped chasing balls in the corner—stopped believing in herself, or so it seemed. It was not what Williams, afterward, or anyone else would call confidence-building on the eve of a Grand Slam.
The U.S. Open may not be the final major of this year’s tennis season: a COVID-19-postponed edition of the French Open is scheduled to be held in the first weeks of fall—although, with virus infections on the rise again in France, who knows. Williams has given interviews about her past experiences with pulmonary embolisms, blood clots in the lungs that cause difficulty breathing and can be life-threatening. She’s been cautiously isolating with her family when not on a tennis court, and hasn’t said whether she’ll travel to Paris. She has won the French Open three times, but clay is the surface least conducive to her game—with its big serves, big returns, and desire for short points—especially at this stage of her career. If a tournament does get under way in France next month, Williams will turn thirty-nine during its second week. That is not normally an age for grinding rallies and sliding into shots on the terre battue.
It’s not normally an age for winning a major on any surface. The oldest woman to win a tennis major was thirty-five. That was Williams herself—and she did it, we learned later, when she was six weeks pregnant, defeating her sister Venus at the 2017 Australian Open. January of 2017, in any sport, is a long, long time ago. Williams’s daughter was born the following September, and, since then, Williams has reached four more Grand Slam finals, but she hasn’t won a set in any of them.
How important is it that Williams win another slam? There was a time when a player’s tally of Grand Slam wins was but one factor among many in calculating her place on the list of all-time greats. In the early days of women’s professional tennis, in the nineteen-seventies, and in the amateur era that preceded it, it was not uncommon for players to skip slams here and there. Players from Europe and America often passed up the Australian Open; until 1987, it was held in December, close to the holidays, and Australia is a long way for most players to travel. (This likely has a lot to do with Margaret Court winning the Australian Open eleven times.) Chris Evert, the greatest women’s clay-court player ever, eschewed Paris three times so that she could play World Team Tennis.Video From The New YorkerFrom Osaka to Federer: What a Forehand Can Reveal
Now the Grand Slams are broadcast on television all over the world, and the revenue from those broadcasts has helped lift total prize money at the U.S. Open and other slams to fifty million dollars and more—majors, today, are really major. In turn, fans and commentators have come to rely on Grand Slam victories to tell the story of tennis. On the men’s side, there’s Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic—the Big Three—each with the prospect of finishing his career with the most major titles in the men’s game. And, on the women’s side, there’s Williams, with her quest for one more, which is sure to be the focus of tournament telecasts from Flushing (particularly given the absence of Federer and Nadal—the former is injured and the latter, citing the coronavirus, has declined to compete in New York). Williams’s quest to win a twenty-fourth major, and her first as a mother, has been a prime-time narrative thread since her return to the game, in 2018. And why not? More than three million viewers tuned in to watch Williams in each of the last two U.S. Open women’s finals, the largest American audiences for tennis in recent years. Fans want to watch her win; they want to watch her make history. And, for many of them, her comeback on the Grand Slam stage has yielded a series of anticlimaxes.
But this, I would suggest, is the wrong way to watch Williams play now. She has already made history. She is, clearly, the greatest of all time: the most dominant for the longest stretch of years; the most influential on the way the game has come to be played; the most consequential culturally, too, as an icon for Black women, especially. Tennis fans across the world will rightly be rooting for her, but to watch with too much anxiousness that she win risks distracting from the very components of her greatness, which are still, remarkably, on display, if no longer consistently. The gift to tennis is that she has continued playing well after her legacy was secured, with sufficing flickers of brilliance, “granted by the relenting fates a golden twilight.”
That last phrase is from John Updike, writing in this magazine sixty years ago, about watching another Williams—Ted—taking his final at-bats. Hitting, Updike wrote, was essentially lonely—like the writing he did, or like singles tennis. Updike ventured to Fenway Park on a late September afternoon in 1960 to get a last glimpse of a player who “assiduously refined his natural skills” and brought to the plate an “intensity of competence” that rewarded a fan whatever the outcome of a particular plate appearance or game.
There will be no fans allowed inside Arthur Ashe Stadium this pandemic summer. But, to the extent that the ESPN camera angles allow, watching Serena’s point-by-point play, noticing again her incomparable skills and the intensity she has brought to them, will be a boon, win or lose. Keep an eye out for how she steps a foot or more inside the baseline to return a second serve, rocking back and forth to not be caught flatfooted, taking the ball early, on a short hop, whether to the forehand or backhand side—not easy, that—and, if she’s able to extend her arms, striking it hard enough and deep enough to take immediate control of the point, if not hit an outright winner. Watch what she does, mid-point, with a short ball to her forehand. She might crush it, but she is just as likely—and this is beautiful to see, and difficult to pull off—to roll it to her opponent’s forecourt, acutely angled, the topspin carrying the ball out of reach. And her backhand, look closely: it’s open-stanced, the way her father taught her and Venus, not sideways as tradition long advised—the better to buy her a little more time, take the ball a bit later, and also, near impossibly (the strength and timing entailed!), direct it not crosscourt but inside-out, flummoxing a right-handed opponent already leaning and preparing her backhand.
A match or tournament, like a life, is more than its outcome. Let’s take our last measures of Serena in moments.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlGerald Marzorati writes regularly about tennis for newyorker.com. He is at work on a book about Serena Williams.