Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 4, 2022

The Torch Is Passed, But To Whom?

By this time next week, a new U.S. Open women’s singles champion will have been crowned at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the hulking focal point of the nearly 50-acre tennis playground that is the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.  Early next Saturday evening nearly 24,000 fans packed into Ashe’s multiple tiers of seats, and many, many times that number watching at home, will salute the last woman standing after two weeks of matches at the final Grand Slam event of the year. 

We know she will be a new champion, because Emma Raducanu’s defense of her 2021 title was short-lived.  This time last year Raducanu, then just 18 years old, was the talk of the tennis world.  She seized the attention of fans at Wimbledon with an utterly improbable run to the fourth round as a wild card entrant playing in the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time ever.  Then in Queens she proved her London performance was no fluke.  Once again making the main draw as a qualifier, Raducanu became the first such contestant to win a Slam in the Open Era, and did so without dropping a set.  But the twelve months since have been difficult ones for Raducanu, filled with coaching changes, injuries, and a bout of COVID-19.  She was bounced out in the second round at each of this season’s first three Grand Slams and could not even match that result in Gotham.  Entering the tournament as the 11th seed, she lost in straight sets to Alize Cornet in the first round.

While we know there won’t be a repeat champion, much of the eventual winner’s identity remains guesswork.  It could be the number one seed, for the first time in eight years.  Poland’s Iga Swiatek has barely been tested through the first three rounds and is set to meet unseeded Jule Niemeier of Germany in her fourth round match Monday.  At the other extreme, it could still be an unseeded player, though only three remain in the women’s bracket, and Niemeier will need to upend Swiatek to advance, while the other two play each other in a fourth round match late Sunday evening. 

Fans might yet wind up cheering for an American winner.  That has not happened since Sloane Stephens bested Madison Keys in an all American final five years ago.  Coco Gauff, the 12th seed and a fan favorite, advanced to the quarterfinals with a gritty 7-5, 7-5 victory over Shuai Zhang Sunday afternoon.  Jessica Pegula and Danielle Collins have also played their way into the fourth round.  Both will try to move on to the quarters on Monday, so for another day at least, fans in this country can dream of a final eight that includes three Americans. 

There is, of course, one other certainty about this year’s women’s titlist, a truth that is related to the decidedly parochial hope in an exceedingly international sport, that multiple Americans get to play on.  That list will not include, and this year’s champion will not be, Serena Williams.

By any objective measure that was an expected outcome even before the first serve in the first match of the main draw last Monday.  Williams will turn 41 later this month, and her last Grand Slam victory came at the 2017 Australian Open.  Unbeknownst to fans at the time, Williams claimed her 23rd Grand Slam title while two months pregnant with her first child.  She has played somewhat sporadically since the birth of daughter Alexis, mixing the occasional strong run through a major tournament with long periods away from competition with an assortment of injuries.  After losing to Naomi Osaka in the semifinals of the 2021 Australian Open, Williams demurred when asked about retirement.  But coming into the U.S. Open she had played in only three of six majors since then and had lost in the first round twice.

Given her far-flung interests and equally broad influence, it was not surprising that Williams chose an interview with “Vogue” magazine to announce that she was “evolving away from tennis, to other things that are important to me.”  While Williams could not bring herself to use the word “retirement,” her intent was clear, as was her statement that she would travel to Flushing Meadow intent on winning.

That single-minded desire combined with the thought of this Open being the final tournament for the dominant player of the last quarter-century understandably fueled dreams of Williams making a deep run through the draw.  The reality was more prosaic, though not for lack of trying by Serena or cheering by thousands of fans packed into Ashe.  She downed Danka Kovinic in a scrappy, error-filled first round match that seemed better suited for one of the outer courts.  She was up, then down, then finally up again against Anett Kontaveitt in the second round, eventually winning 7-6, 2-6, 6-2.  Then, Friday evening, Williams was resilient and resourceful, but ultimately not dominant, against Ajla Tomljanovic.

A 29-year-old Croatian who plays under the Australian flag, Tomljanovic could have played the part virtually all the 24,000 in the seats and millions at home wanted.  She could have melted under the hot lights of center stage or succumbed to the collective will of all those wanting Williams to advance.  Instead, playing within herself and staying in the moment, she broke Serena three times to win the first set.  Then, crucially, she rallied after Williams had gone up 5-2 in the second set, eventually forcing a tiebreaker.  Williams prevailed, but the extra games, the added steps, the expended energy, all mattered in the third set to the 40-year-old body of a generation’s champion.  The spirit, as the old saying goes, was willing, but in the end, fans were asking too much of an aging hero.  

Serena’s impact beyond tennis is immeasurable.  We will never know how many young girls she inspired to take up a sport, how many young women she helped overcome obstacles, how many people deemed different by those with power found strength in her story.  We do know that at long last, she has chosen to lay down her racket, and move on.  By this time next week, someone else will be the story of the tennis world.  Whoever it is will deserve the accolades.  But she won’t be Serena Williams. 

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