While the NFL was once again showcasing the worst America has to offer, Serena Williams took the court to show the best it has to offer. It was her 11th straight U.S. Open semifinal, itself a ridiculous record that gets lost in Serena’s 23 Grand Slam titles.
Reaching another final would have been her third straight, and the seventh of the last nine U.S. Opens she’s played in (she missed 2017 due to maternity leave), but it proved to be a bridge too far. Victoria Azarenka, herself a wonderful comeback story from near retirement, had her doors blown off in the first set but then recovered to up the pace and tempo, and Serena simply couldn’t hang in the longer points. Serena also injured her ankle in the third set, though she was already down a break at that point. Just two weeks shy of her 39th birthday, Serena just didn’t quite have enough gas in the tank to win her fourth straight three-set match.
So the wait goes on for Serena to tie bigot Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slams, and it may not come in a couple weeks in Paris. Serena has been noncommittal about playing the French Open, as she’s not totally at ease with fans being allowed in Roland-Garros, and the bubble set-up that the tournament will have. If she doesn’t play, it’ll be four years since her last Grand Slam when she rolls up to the Australian Open next January.
Winning a Grand Slam at 39 would be unheard of, seeing as how Serena was the oldest woman to win a Grand slam when she was 36. But then, there have been a lot of firsts in Serena’s career. But she doesn’t need the record to be known as the greatest player ever. It’s merely a trinket. And she and tennis as a whole only need to look at the semifinal before hers tonight to see why.
Naomi Osaka, the prohibitive favorite to win before the tournament started, and Jennifer Brady played about as high-quality and competitive semifinal as the tournament has seen in a long while. There were only two breaks of serve in the whole match, and both players combined for 70 winners and just 42 unforced errors. And it was the kind of tennis that Serena has inspired from a generation of players that grew up watching and idolizing her.
It took tennis a while to figure out that it wasn’t just power that got Serena, and her sister Venus, where they are. Plenty of women could hit the ball nearly as hard as Serena, if you gave them five minutes of time and didn’t ask them to move. But none had Serena’s athleticism. They couldn’t move and hit like Serena, or think like her either. Well, this generation came armed with both, because they grew up watching Serena do it. Osaka and Brady aren’t just hitters, they’re supreme athletes. The level of athleticism and precision in their semifinal tonight would have been unfathomable ten years ago. Some of it is just natural evolution of the game, the greater training methods at younger ages, but a lot of it is Serena declaring how the sport would be played.
Same with other players who have beaten Serena to recent Slams like Bianca Andreescu, or Ashleigh Barty, or Garbiñe Muguruza. The list could go on from there. What it means is Serena has changed the game. All-time great players eventually see the game rise to them and then topple them. The focus shouldn’t be on the last part, but the fact that they were so good, the game had to come to them. Sampras begat Federer, who begat Nadal and Djokovic. But it took a decade or more for the game to catch Serena, and she’s hardly dust yet.
Serena also introduced and opened the game to so many who never would have found it before. And she did it while never shying from being exactly who she wanted to be. A lot of times, in the beginning of her career, that rubbed tennis the wrong way, because no one had ever been like her before. But much like on the court, everyone caught up to Serena off the court as well, to the point where she’s now universally beloved. When once dismissed as disrespectful or brash or uncaring, she’s now synonymous with power, grace, individualism, and excellence. Merely the word “Serena” stands for all that.
Serena is the greatest women’s tennis player ever, and a national treasure. She doesn’t need a number for any of that.