Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 11, 2016

A New Generation Rises In Women’s Tennis

In sports, as in life, the full significance of a moment is sometimes not immediately apparent. Only with the passage of time, as that moment cascades into all those that follow, can one appreciate what one witnessed. Tennis fans were aware of the obvious implications of Thursday’s results in the women’s semifinals at the U.S. Open. But the stray thought that perhaps they were seeing something more must have occurred to more than a few of the thousands packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, or watching on television. More than just an upset, perhaps they were witness to a changing of the guard.

When 24-year old Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic emphatically ended Serena Williams’s run through the Open draw with a 6-2, 7-5 (5) straight set victory in the semis, many of the ramifications were well known. For the second year in a row Williams was denied a spot in the finals of her national championship. Her victory earlier this summer at Wimbledon was Williams’s 22nd Grand Slam title, moving her into a tie with Steffi Graf for the most in the open era; but now her quest to move ahead of Graf must wait at least until next year’s Australian Open.

The loss, coupled with Angelique Kerber’s earlier advance to the finals meant that when the new women’s rankings are issued next week, the 28-year old German will supplant Williams as the number one woman player. As fate would have it, this week marked Williams’s 186th consecutive week as number one, again matching Graf for the longest streak at the top. Facing her 35th birthday later this month, Williams must surely know that any hope of breaking Graf’s consecutive week mark is now extinguished. With 309 total weeks at the top of the rankings, beating Graf’s total of 377 was always a tall order for Williams. Now that too seems out of reach.

None of those facts should lead one to pen the tennis obituary of Serena Williams. If she is no longer number one, she has slipped only to number two; and it would certainly not be a surprise if in the months ahead she reclaims the top spot, at least for a time. And one might want to be careful about placing too large a wager against Williams eventually breaking the tie with Graf for career Grand Slam titles. She arrived at Flushing Meadows with a nagging right shoulder injury, and then hurt her left knee when she took a tumble during her second round match. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou told the media that the knee got “worse and worse” as the tournament went on.

But then nagging injuries tend to nag more when a player is in her middle thirties. What is inescapable is that the past year has been shockingly different for the player so long at the top of the women’s game from what fans had grown used to. Last year on the same Stadium Court fans were stunned when Williams lost the Open semifinal to Roberta Vinci in three sets. She had already won the “Serena Slam” by capturing the prior year’s U.S. Open and then the first three majors of 2015. Just two matches short of becoming the fourth woman in history and the first since Graf in 1988 to capture the calendar year Grand Slam, the idea of Williams losing was incomprehensible to most fans. Starting with the 2008 U.S. Open title, she won thirteen of the next thirty-two majors. Over that period she failed to win at least one of the four Grand Slam events only in 2011, when she was hampered by injuries.

Then came the semifinal against Vinci, who at age 32 was the oldest woman in the open era to reach her first Grand Slam semi. The first set went to Williams by a score of 6-2. Exactly what the crowd expected. Yet the veteran Vinci refused to go quietly, rallying to even the match and then capture the third set in stunning fashion. After her 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 triumph Vinci even managed to charm the overwhelmingly pro-Williams crowd in her tearful victory speech by congratulating Williams and apologizing for the fans disappointment, saying “Serena is an incredible player. Today is my day. Sorry guys.”

The shock upset was thought to be a bump in the road for the world number one; but since then the path has just been bumpy for Williams. Most tellingly, this year has been a reminder that tennis is a young woman’s game. The new number one Kerber, who went on to defeat Pliskova in the women’s final on Saturday, is almost seven years Williams’s junior. At that, Kerber is the oldest woman in the history of the rankings to be making an initial appearance at the top. It was Kerber, who celebrated her 28th birthday on the first day of the Australian Open in January, who stopped Williams in the final at Melbourne Park. At the French Open 22-year old Garbine Muguruza was the youthful opponent Williams could not overcome. At the Rio Olympics the foe was 21-year old Elina Svitolina of Ukraine who ousted Williams in the third round. The early defeat denied Williams a spot on the medal podium, where gold went to 22-year old Monica Puig. Finally at Flushing Meadows it was the 24-year old Pliskova putting an end to Williams’s title hopes, and depending on the state of her injuries, perhaps her 2016 season.

In a career that has already been marked by unexpected comebacks, perhaps Serena Williams is capable of another. Six separate times she has ascended to the top of the women’s rankings. Her place in the history of the game long since ceased to be in doubt. She will forever be one of the subjects in the always enjoyable if ultimately meaningless debates among fans and pundits about the greatest player ever. But the ancient lesson remains, time and chance happeneth to them all. When tennis fans look back a few years from now, perhaps they will see a reminder of that in Vinci’s improbable 2015 semifinal victory; and perhaps in the 2016 results they will see confirmation that in the women’s game, a new age has begun.

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