Photo: The Canadian Press
Whether or not it actually turns out to be the final event of his long, storied and influential playing career — and in professional tennis, perhaps more than any other sport, goodbyes sometimes end up being a see you later — the two weeks hard court tournament starting Monday at Flushing Meadows and concludes the 2022 Grand Slam calendar will be, first and foremost, about Williams.
As long as she stays in the field, at least.
That’s fitting, because much of the last two decades and then some of tennis, in general, and the US Open, in particular, have focused on Williams, who turns 41 next month. There is that unmistakable ability with the racket in hand and the unwavering drive to be the best that led him to 23 major individual championshipsthe No. 1 ranking and Olympic gold medals, and that transcendent and striking quality that made her a celebrity much like a superstar athlete.
“From my point of 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 she’s changed the way women compete, to the extent that it’s okay for her to be fierce and passionate and vocal and emotional on the court and still be a woman.”
The ways in which Williams – and, no doubt, her older sister, Venus, 42, owner of seven Slam singles titles and Serena’s partner in 14 major doubles trophies – changed the game are varied and numerous, and they extend beyond the way his fast serves and booming groundstrokes prompted, or even forced, other players to try to 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 brothers in the early 1990s, before they were teenagers. “When we competed or did competitive exercises, I saw something that I never saw. They tried so hard to get to a ball that they almost fell over. Now you can exert yourself; 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’s everywhere, whether it’s embodied by players who credit her for being an inspiration, like French Open runner-up Coco Gauff, or in such clear rule changes, or at least probably, they are the product of episodes involving her.
Case in point: a line can be drawn to this year’s decision by the US Tennis Association to allow in-match training for women and men at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since the chaotic Open final. at the 2018 USA Championship in which Williams ended up being docked a game after receiving a warning about taking instructions from her then-coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, during a loss to Naomi Osaka.
Another example: the proliferation of electronic line calls, to the point where there are no linesmen at US Open matches anymore. Jennifer Capriati.
At the US Open alone, there were other run-ins with officials (Who can forget the foot-fault hoopla in her 2009 semi-final against Kim Clijsters), innovative fashion choices (a catsuit in 2002; knee-high boots two years ago). later) and many triumphs, dating back to 1999, when the 17-year-old Williams beat Martina Hingis for her opening Grand Slam trophy.
Thus, Arthur Ashe Stadium would provide a fitting backdrop for a farewell, though Williams did not explicitly say she would never compete again after the US Open as she told the world via an essay in Vogue magazine that she was prepared to begin “evolving away tennis” to focus on having a second child and pursuing her business interests.
Every time you step on a court in New York, it will be treated as if it were the last time. That will start with a first-round match against Danka Kovinic, a 27-year-old Montenegrin who is ranked 80th and has never made it past the third round in a major tournament.
It will be only the fifth singles match for Williams in the last 12 months, as the American sat out the tour with 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 losses against Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic and 2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu, in her two outings. most recent.
There was a time, not so long ago, in the scheme of things, when Williams was considered the favorite in every game and in every tournament, especially in the four events that matter most in the sport.
“I say: don’t underestimate her,” said ESPN analyst Evert. “But the problem is the field. The problem is that everyone else is getting better too. … Now there are a lot of good players who, the No. 1, are not intimidated by her; and No. 2, knowing that she’s not at her best right now; and No. 3, I want to beat her.”
Two days before his loss to Bencic in Toronto, and one day before revealing his thoughts on retirement (a word he said he doesn’t like), Williams told a news conference: “I can’t do this forever.”
That is true, of course. However, no one expects this to be the last the world hears of her, even if there really aren’t any games left to play.
“At the end of the day, his biggest stage was tennis,” said Macci, Williams’s coach years ago, “but I think his biggest performance is yet to come.”