Admit it. It was hard to watch.
Whether or not you are a hardcore Serena Williams fan, seeing the greatest player in the history of tennis collapse with so much on the line Thursday night made us all a little uncomfortable.
It’s not that unseeded Victoria Azarenka doesn’t deserve to be playing Naomi Osaka in the U.S. Open final on Saturday. It’s not that she didn’t give an incredibly gutty performance in coming back from a set down to beat Williams, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.
It’s that now there is no denying the mounting evidence that Williams may never win that elusive 24th Grand Slam and tie Margaret Court for the all-time record.
If not this year, when? Williams turns 39 at the end of this month and it’s difficult to imagine she will ever have a better shot at a major than she had at this tournament. This, after all, was a COVID-culled competition on the women’s side, featuring the weakest field in its history in terms of top-10 players.
Williams avoided playing any top-10 players throughout the tournament, yet her last four matches all went three sets. Yes, there were times she looked like her dominant self such as when she served up 20 aces in the quarterfinals against Tsvetana Pironkova. Or when she played nearly perfect tennis as she did in the first set against Azarenka.
It’s just that she now lacks consistency and the physical stamina of a younger player. Williams still has the most formidable serve in the game. She displays the kind of mental toughness that brought her to the heights of her profession. But she isn’t so far ahead of everyone else in the field that she can turn it on and off when she needs to.
“I started really strong,” Williams said after the match. “Then, she just kept fighting. She just changed and started playing better and better. Maybe I took a little too much of the gas pedal at some point.”
There once was a time Williams would have never taken her foot off the pedal.
Williams has now lost to eight different opponents in the nine grand Slams since returning from the birth of her daughter. Her ninth defeat was when she forfeited to Maria Sharapova in the 2018 French Open because of an injury.
There are those who have suggested that Williams doesn’t have the same drive she had before becoming a mother. I would say this has little to do with being a mother, but a lot to do with being a 38-year-old mother. Williams is more than six years older than the next oldest player she faced in this tournament. There is a big difference between your early 30s and late 30s.
It’s clear Williams no longer has the fear factor going for her. She can’t step on the court already up a mental break just because the person she is playing grew up with a poster of her on her bedroom wall. There is little wiggle room, little room for error.
It’s not easy to watch great players on the downside of their careers. Think Michael Jordan’s two years with the Wizards. Or even Patrick Ewing’s final seasons with Seattle and Orlando. It’s not easy to watch superheroes struggle to do the things that once came so easily to them.
But that doesn’t mean we should quit watching, quit cheering for them. We just need to adjust expectations. There is an absolute beauty in watching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar land a creaky-kneed skyhook toward the end of his career, a beauty in watching competitors perfectly execute a dominant move they have been performing all their lives.
Williams may never win another Grand Slam tournament. She may never catch Court’s bogus record, a record that includes 11 Australian Open, wins when basically few other players were traveling to Australia.
So what? She has plenty of aces left in the tank.