The clock is ticking.
Serena Williams has 23 Grand Slam titles. Margaret Court has 24. And no matter what you think about one of the greatest and most polarizing athletes of our time, it is impossible not to admire what Williams is attempting as she begins play at the U.S. Open on Monday against one-time rival Maria Sharapova.
Williams, 37, is looking to win her first Grand Slam title since she was pregnant and beat her sister Venus in the 2017 Australian Open final. If that isn’t dramatic enough, she is looking to tie Court’s record at a place that is filled with so many memories, both good and bad.
Williams has won the U.S. Open a record six times, including three straight from 2012-14. It was the site of her first Grand Slam win 20 years ago when at the age of 17, she clutched her hand to her heart in pure joy after Martina Hingis’ final backhand went long to give her the match.
It also was the site of pure chaos last year. Her loss to Naomi Osaka in the final ended in tears and boos after Williams received three code-of-conduct violations from chair umpire Carlos Ramos.
The reverberations of that final continue to be felt. It was announced last week that Ramos will not officiate any of the Williams sisters’ matches and that code violations will be posted as they occur to increase awareness of rules and penalties.
A whole year later, fans still are debating who was at fault in that confrontation — whether Williams behaved like a spoiled brat or whether Ramos held her to a standard that male athletes wouldn’t be.
Perhaps the one way to dull the memory of last year’s ugliness would be for the eighth-seeded Williams to get back to the final.
Since returning to competition in 2018 after experiencing a childbirth with life-threatening complications, Williams has reached three Grand Slam finals, including Wimbledon this year. She has lost all three in straight sets.
A knee injury caused her to pull out of three tournaments earlier this season. Back spasms forced her to pull out of a tournament in Toronto last month and miss a tuneup event in Cincinnati.
“She’s having a hard time getting over that last hurdle,” said Pam Shriver, the Hall of Fame doubles player turned ESPN commentator. “Sometimes it just becomes you’re not as physically good in the finals as you used to be, but I think there’s now also an emotional toll.
“It’s everything. Getting older. Having more injuries. The time away. Having a baby. She can’t be as selfishly single- focused because now she has a family. It’s all of that.
“It’s complicated, and she is one of the most emotional players to play the game. We saw the negative side of that last year at the U.S. Open. Not that she wasn’t triggered by some difficult decision.”
Chris Evert, the only other woman to own six U.S. Open titles, picks Williams to win it all this year.
“Serena always comes to mind first because I always feel if it’s a healthy Serena, she’s still going to beat everybody,’’ Evert said. “The matches are almost only on her racket. She looks like she’s as fit as she has been since she’s come back in the last year and a half. She did reach the finals of [Toronto], then she pulled out because of back spasms. She’s still getting to the finals of all these tournaments. Nobody else is as consistently reaching the finals like Serena.
“I’m wondering if this U.S. Open crowd can really embrace her and sort of inspire her to come out and play her best tennis. I think she’s going to get that 24 somehow. I really have faith in her.”
The crowd will have a chance to embrace Williams early. Thanks to a quirky draw, she is opening the tournament Monday night against Sharapova, 32, who has struggled since her return from a 15-month suspension stemming from her use of the banned drug meldonium.
The matchup might be the most hyped, one-sided rivalry in the history of the game, given that Williams has dominated Sharapova since the Russian defeated her at Wimbledon in 2004. Williams has won the last 18 matches they’ve played.
This is their first meeting in the U.S. Open, which means it could be one of the most-watched first-round matches in the event’s history.
“Of course I’m going to watch it. I know you all are going to watch it,” Osaka told reporters Friday. “I think everyone in New York is going to watch it.”
Watch it and wonder if it might be the beginning of a historical run. The clock, after all, is ticking.