NEW YORK — Thanks to Serena Williams, this U.S. Open will be like none other.
Whether or not it actually does turn out to be the final event of her lengthy, storied and influential playing career – and in professional tennis, perhaps more than in any other sport, goodbyes sometimes end up being see-you-agains – the two-week hard-court tournament that begins Monday at Flushing Meadows and wraps up the 2022 Grand Slam calendar will be, first and foremost, about Williams.
As long as she remains in the field, at least. Williams faces Danka Kovinic, a 27-year-old from Montenegro, in Arthur Ashe Stadium in the first round of singles Monday night and also is entered in doubles with her sister, Venus.
The focus on Williams is fitting, because so much of the past two decades, and then some, of tennis, in general, and at the U.S. Open, in particular, have been about Williams, who turns 41 next month. There is that unmistakable skill with a racket in hand and indiminishable drive to be the best that led to 23 major singles championships, the No. 1 ranking and Olympic gold medals, and that transcendent, attention-demanding quality that made her a celebrity as much as a superstar athlete.
“In my view, she revolutionized tennis,” said Chris Evert, who won 18 majors in the 1970s and 1980s. “She revolutionized the power in the game. And I feel like she really inspired women of color, because we’ve seen a lot more women of color playing the game. And I think that she’s changed the way women compete, as far as it’s OK to be ferocious and passionate and vocal out there, emotional out there on the court, and still be a woman.”
The ways in which Williams – and, to be sure, 42-year-old Venus, the owner of seven Slam singles titles herself and Serena’s partner for 14 major doubles trophies – changed the game are varied and numerous, and extend beyond the way their speedy serves and booming groundstrokes prompted, or even forced, other players to try to either match that style or figure out how to try to counter it.
“There was something inside both of them,” said Rick Macci, a tennis coach who worked with both Williams siblings in the early 1990s, starting before they were teenagers. “When we competed or did competitive drills, I just saw something I never saw. They tried so hard to get to a ball, they almost fell over. Now you can try hard; that doesn’t mean you’re going to be world champion. But it was just another level.”
Williams has said she doesn’t know how to define her legacy, but it is all around, whether embodied by players who credit her with being an inspiration, such as four-time major champion Naomi Osaka or French Open runner-up Coco Gauff, or in rules changes that clearly, or at least likely, are a product of episodes involving her.
“Her legacy is really wide, to the point where you can’t even describe it in words. She changed the sport so much. She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport. I think I’m a product of what she’s done. I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family. I’m very thankful to her,” Osaka said. “I also was trying to figure out how to sum it into words. I honestly think that she’s the biggest force in the sport.”
A line can be drawn to the decision this year by the U.S. Tennis Association to allow in-match coaching for women and men at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time from the chaotic 2018 U.S. Open final in which Williams ended up being docked a game after being warned about receiving instructions from her then-coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, during a loss to Osaka.
The proliferation of electronic line-calling, to the point that there are no line judges at U.S. Open matches anymore, can be traced back to a 2004 quarterfinal match at Flushing Meadows in which multiple erroneous rulings went against Williams during a loss to Jennifer Capriati.
At the U.S. Open alone, there were other run-ins with officials (who can forget the foot-fault brouhaha in her 2009 semifinal against Kim Clijsters), groundbreaking fashion choices (a catsuit in 2002; knee-high boots two years later) and plenty of triumphs, dating all the way back to 1999, when a 17-year-old Williams beat Martina Hingis for her initial Grand Slam trophy.
So the Ashe court provides a fitting backdrop for a farewell, although Williams did not quite explicitly say that she would never compete again after the U.S. Open while telling the world via an essay in Vogue magazine that she was prepared to begin “evolving away from tennis” to focus on having a second child and pursuing her business interests.
Every time she steps on court in New York will be treated as if it might be the last time. Even her practice sessions have been attended by throngs of fans in the days prior to the tourament’s start.
“Who knows if there’s going to be another Serena again? I doubt it,” said Kovinic, who is ranked 80th this week and never has been past the third round at a major tournament. “I’m honored to have this chance to play her.”
It will be only the fifth singles match for Williams over the past 12 months, because the American was off the tour from a first-round injury at Wimbledon last year until a first-round loss there this year. Since returning from that hiatus, Williams is 1-3, including straight-set defeats against Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic and 2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu in her two most recent outings.
There was a time – not all that long ago, in the scheme of things – that Williams was considered the favorite in every match and at every tournament, especially at the four events that matter the most in the sport.
“I say: Don’t underestimate her,” said Evert, an ESPN analyst. “But the problem is the field. The problem is everybody else is getting better, too. … There’s a lot of good players out there now who, No. 1, aren’t intimidated by her; and No. 2, know that she’s not at her best at the moment; and No. 3, want to beat her.”
Two days before her loss to Bencic in Toronto, and a day before revealing her thoughts about retirement (a word she said she dislikes), Williams said at a news conference: “I can’t do this forever.”
That’s true, of course. No one, though, expects this to be the last the world hears of her, even if there really aren’t any matches left to play.
“At the end of the day, her biggest stage was tennis,” said Macci, the Williams’ coach from years ago, “but I think her greatest act is yet to come.”
Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.