At the US Open, last year’s teenage finalists went out early in the tournament in straight sets. The British player and holder, Emma Raducanu, lost to the Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet 6-3, 6-3 in the first round. Leylah Fernandez lost in the second round to the Russian player Ljoedmila Samsonova 6-3 7-6. And yet those early shock exits barely made a ripple in the news.
That’s because all eyes were on Serena Williams. She had more or less stated that this was to be her final tournament. Except that she has consistently refused to use the word “retire”, preferring “evolve”, implying that she was moving in a new direction.
As ever on the feminist bandwagon, she explained that she wanted to extend her family. “I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be saying this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family.”
Except that she turns 41 this month. How many players are at the top of the singles game at that age? None. 41 is an age well after most players retire, which made her statement sound somewhat ridiculous.
She should probably have hung her rackets up a few years ago — but she admits to having been driven by the obsession of equalling Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam titles.
Yet it seemed fitting to bow out in New York, her home Slam, a tournament filled with p’zzazz, deafening crowd noise and pumping music at every changeover. This is a crowd that loves drama, something which Serena has always supplied in spades.
For her first round match against the 80th ranked Danka Kovinic from Montenegro, Williams entered, unsmiling, into the arena in a sparkly black number matched with a lavish floor length robe which she discarded theatrically at the umpire’s chair. A heavyweight boxer’s appearance came to mind, which was no doubt the intention. Predictably, the 24,000 New York crowd erupted. One of her earrings spelled out a somewhat narcissistic “Loved”.
But would her game live up to all the hype? Or was this a case of all mouth and no trousers?
She’d only played a handful of matches in the past year, one of which was a thrashing at the hands of Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati just a couple of weeks prior to this one.
When play commenced, the apparent Williams confidence took a turn. She suddenly looked petrified: unheard-of multiple double faults, breathing high up in the chest. But once she got a few games under her belt, she relaxed and the crowd helped her through. Every winner was greeted with wild applause, as were (less sportingly) her hapless opponent’s mistakes. Williams survived, winning by 6-3, 6-3.
Billie-Jean King came onto the court post-match and addressed the winner. “You are fearless. Thank you for sharing your journey with every single one of us. Thank you for your leadership and commitment to equality and diversity, especially for women and women of colour. We love you and guess what – you’re just beginning.”
Next up we had Oprah Winfrey:
“Just know: whatever you do next, we’ll be watching.”
Tiger Woods beamed from the player’s box.
This was Flushing Meadows on steroids. And we’re talking about a first round match here.
Williams’s next opponent, the second seeded Estonian Anett Kontaveit, also folded in the face of this relentless atmosphere, losing by 6-2 in the final set.
Now Serena was being talked up as one of the tournament favourites. After all, if she could beat the second seed, why wouldn’t she go all the way with all this crowd support?
Next up was the Aussie Ajla Tomljanovic who, sensibly, entered the stadium with her head down and sporting earphones to block out the explosion at her opponent’s appearance.
She then had to sit through a montage of Serena’s US Open moments on the big screens followed by SERENA WILLIAMS in huge font directly in her eyeline during the warm up.
To a Brit watching from afar, it all seemed monstrously unfair.
What followed, though, was an extraordinary match with incredible shots from both players. Williams was moving freely and pounding the ball for winners, clearly lifted by the deafening home support. Gone was the sluggish movement so apparent in Cincinnati.
She finally ran out of steam in the third set, but was no doubt hugely relieved to exit the tournament with her head held high.
Serena is a marmite player: whether you love or hate her she will be hugely missed. She is the biggest drama queen and diva in tennis history. This has made for many fascinating and explosive matches, most of which have taken place in New York. There she was defaulted in 2009 for screaming abuse at a lineswomen who had the “nerve” to call a footfault on her. She was penalised for abusing an official in 2011. She lost to Naomi Osaka in 2018 after being docked a game for calling the umpire a thief and a liar. There have been times in New York when she has behaved appallingly, and yet her home crowd still appear to adore her.
There is no-one in the women’s game with her force of personality and for that alone she will leave a gaping hole in the sport.
She leaves the sport with 23 Grand Slam singles titles and 14 doubles Slam titles with her sister Venus, as well as four Olympic gold medals.
Except, hang on a moment… In her final on-court interview she teased the crowd with: “I love Australia.” Melbourne is the next Slam event, which takes place in January. Not another comeback, surely?
It’s been a wild ride in New York. But surely now is the perfect moment for her to “evolve”.