NEW YORK—While yet to strike even one two-ounce tennis ball at a U.S. Open that will rustle to life Monday, Serena Williams has added yet another distinction to her astounding collection. Somehow, all the way right up next to 2020, she will serve as the loudest story at this loudest Grand Slam, the last of the decade.
However her narrative unfolds here, it will prove louder than that of either Wimbledon champion Simona Halep or French Open champion Ashleigh Barty, louder than that of defending U.S. Open and Australian Open champion and No. 1 player Naomi Osaka, louder than that of the once-impossible numbers chase atop the men’s game.
Somehow, that’s all true 20 years since a Martina Hingis backhand whirred long, and a 17-year-old girl in yellow — Williams — put her left hand to her chest in obvious disbelief at the first Grand Slam title toward 23. It’s true even in 2019, when a No. 8-ranked Williams has played just 24 matches while the rest of the top 20 has averaged almost 43, has withdrawn during two matches, has withdrawn before two other matches, and has just had a frustrated cry in Toronto before reminding the audience, “I’m not a crier.”
This is not because she returns to the theatre of her ruckus with a chair umpire during the final last year that loosed one of those — oh, no — national discussions. It’s all because she remains on that 23 with the clock ticking and Margaret Court forever just up there at 24. And it’s partly because the fiendish draw cooked up a first-round match between Williams and Maria Sharapova, a continuation of a non-rivalry often identified as a “rivalry.”
If her body co-operates at going-on-38, Williams will play 32-year-old Sharapova for the first time at a U.S. Open after four times at the Australian Open, twice at Wimbledon and once at the French Open. She will aim to run her record against the five-time Grand Slam champion to 20-2, heightening even the mountain of evidence that back in 2004 when the record stood at 1-2, she must have gotten plenty ticked off. Since the end of the first set of a 2005 Australian Open semifinal, Williams has won 36 of their 38 sets together.
Yet with Williams in 2019, one always needs to back it all up to the part about the body co-operating. Her season has been such that fans and other onlookers will watch this 2019 U.S. Open with an overarching question: Can she hang onto just enough firmness to endure the seven matches to a tennis-historic Saturday night?
For much of a heady summer, it seemed she could. She found her way to another Wimbledon final, a feat even with her six victims ranked Nos. 161, 133, 17, 31, 55 and 54. She lost that to a masterful Halep, but she followed that by reaching both the hard courts and the Toronto final, besting Osaka along the way in their first meeting since Osaka’s romp in the 2018 U.S. Open final.
Then, trailing 3-1 against the 19-year-old marvel Bianca Andreescu, Williams asked for a medical timeout.
Then, she retired.
Later, after Andreescu won much renown and Williams’ fandom for walking over and consoling Williams, Williams told reporters, “My whole back just completely spasmed (in the semifinal match) to a point where I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t really move so I was just trying to figure out how you play a match when you have no rotation.”
She said such spasms usually subside, so here we are, wondering if a seventh U.S. Open title can loom two weeks ahead to accompany her seven Wimbledons, her seven Australian Opens and her three French Opens, all of which would hit that magical 24.
Tennis history and legacy and celebrity add up to more noise than even No. 1 Osaka, the charming 21-year-old defending champion who will start off against 93rd-ranked Anna Blinkova from Russia. Curiously, Osaka still has not lost any quarterfinal, semifinal or final in her hit-or-miss path through her first 14 Grand Slams. Williams’ try still adds up to more noise than No. 2 Barty and her becomingly unusual path from tennis to cricket and back to tennis. It still adds up to more than the presence of Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old Floridian sensation ranked No. 141 and debuting in the big draw opposite No. 76 Anastasia Potapova from Russia.
A 37-year-old pursuing a major record while biology sustains its everlasting rudeness outpaces even the implausible Federer-Nadal-Djokovic trio. After Roger Federer spent June and July of 2009 catching and then passing Pete Sampras’ seemingly celestial record of 14 Grand Slam titles, the numbers looked like this: Federer 15, Rafael Nadal 6, Novak Djokovic 1.
By 2014, they looked like this: Federer 17, Rafael Nadal 14, Novak Djokovic 7.
Now, they look like this: Federer 20, Nadal 18, Djokovic 16.
In one of those matters in sports that can’t really be happening yet is, those three men have claimed the past 11 Grand Slams and 32 of the 39 this decade, such that no one projects anyone else winning. For a hot player, there’s 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev, who upon the hard courts has reached the final in Washington, the final in Montreal, the trophy in Cincinnati and a No. 5 ranking behind No. 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Nadal, No. 3 Federer and No. 4 Dominic Thiem.
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All the hot players of recent years never seem to dislodge the 32-year-old (Djokovic), 33-year-old (Nadal) and 38-year-old (Federer) at the top, with Nadal having won a 12th French title and Djokovic and Federer having played a rousing Wimbledon final which Djokovic won by the storybook score of 13-12 in the fifth.
To out-loud all of that, it takes quite somebody, yet quite somebody does exist. She’s 37, going on 38.