It is obviously going to take a brave woman to stare down Serena Wiliams at Ashe Stadium, where 24,000 (minus the handful they have in their player’s box) will be backing the legend to keep her career alive for just a couple more days. It is perhaps the most unique advantage in tennis history, a wall of noise pointed in one direction that never happens anywhere else.
Watching her two matches, you can hear the desperation in the crowd under the raucousness, the actual fear that it could be the last time poking through the excitement. You can hear it on the broadcast too (not to mention the ceremony after her first-round match that was definitely planned to follow either result and contained enough “This Is Your Life” that they were definitely leaning toward being ready if Serena lost). ESPN’s commentators have been bending over backward and back around again to praise Serena or compare her to her younger self, which she definitely isn’t. She’s moving fine…for 40. She got pushed around the court by Anett Kontaveit a fair amount, and was able to hang around thanks to some superb, lunging defense that we’re simply not used to seeing from Serena because she’s so rarely needed it. Fair play to her for still having it in the bag, and for fending off Kontaveit who really was hitting the ball amazingly well and probably deserved more appreciation from the New York crowd for the tennis she was playing (32 winners).
Perhaps that twinge of desperation from the New York crowd is wanting to make up for lost time, as it wasn’t always the most hospitable place for Serena. It’s been a while since that was the case, but it did happen, as Flushing Meadows took the same amount of time as the rest of tennis to fully welcome the Williams Sisters. It was a slow process. One can’t forget the glee of a good portion of the crowd in that famous match against Jennifer Capriati that is almost single-handedly responsible for the installation of Hawk-Eye. Certainly when Serena threatened a linesperson that wasn’t met with universal approval either (nor should it have been), but it was also a crowd that was ready to jump on her as well.
But everyone got there eventually, and now no one wants it to end. That includes Serena, who stretched and chased down some balls that she probably doesn’t get to anywhere else on the planet and under any other circumstances. It was striking to see Serena have to fend off a player like Kontaveit, who clearly has molded herself to be like Serena — enormous forehand combined with plus mobility and willing to pounce upon any opening for a winner. But this has been the story of the last few years of Williams’ career, facing down players who are a product of the game she changed.
It may go a while longer yet. The draw is open, and Serena can’t see the tour’s current all-conquering monster Iga Świątek until the final. The 2nd and 3rd seeds have eaten it. Most of the other top seeds are in the other half of the draw. Coco Gauff and Madison Keys are about to play each other, and they’re just about the only two players who might not face the full force of a baying Ashe Stadium (though only slightly). Other than Świątek, no one on tour is carrying a ton of momentum (even Kontaveit’s form coming into the U.S. Open had been wonky, but it says something about the current state of the tour that still gets you a No. 2 ranking).
“This is the circus. Everyone’s trying not to go home” (Name that flick!). Maybe New York missed some of the circus and is sorry it did. But they definitely don’t want to go home now, squeezing every drop from whatever time is left.
Can I steal something from old friend Jesse Spector? Well, I’m going to:
It looks like Ohtani has risen from hell to smack dingers and make hitters look foolish, which he very well might have. And it’s also probably how Angels fans will feel when he’s traded this winter. A deal with Satan indeed.