By Jane Voigt
Serena Williams swims in a sea crowded with big fish, the biggest one being Serena.
She harbors expectations about her mind and body — the latter first to fail yesterday against Karolina Pliskova in one semifinal at the U. S. Open, a stunning 6-2, 7-6(5) upset.
“I have been having some serious left knee problems,” Williams told the press after the match. “I wasn’t able to move the way I wanted to move. When you’re injured you’re thinking of other things when you should be just playing and thinking of your shots. My mind was just a little bit everywhere.”
The loss was the second consecutive in the U. S. Open semifinals. Last year, though, Williams was aiming for a calendar-year Grand Slam until Roberta Vinci slammed the door in her face. Williams mind was bent out of shape that sunny day, not her knee.
The stakes were high yesterday, though, from the perspective of sports. If Serena had won she might have held on to her number-one ranking, depending how things turned out in Saturday’s women’s final. Then, she might have broken a tie for weeks at number one she held alongside Steffi Graf — 186. Now, well, it remains a tie.
“I don’t talk about that whatsoever,” Williams said, in a stern somewhat condescending tone when asked if getting back the top ranking would be a priority this fall.
Had she beaten Pliskova, who was so zoned in on her first appearance on Arthur Ashe Stadium that fans mistook her for a veteran, Williams would have been on track to lift her 23rd Grand Slam singles trophy and break Steffi Graf’s record that the two women have shared since Serena won Wimbledon earlier this summer.
Williams’ attitude in press was markedly different from her attitude in press after the Vinci loss. By the time Williams left Ashe last year to the time she hopped in a car to head off to her hotel thirty minutes had passed.
She’s learned. She’s eased up on herself and those around her. But her perfectionism and pride, the eddy that swirls in her mind, had to have been rough.
“I’m only really proud,” Serena began. “You know, obviously I’m a perfectionist and I love to win. That’s when I feel my proudest.”
If we step back for a wide-angle view, every time this woman wins a match we expect another record. We expect her to be perfect so she can have her proudest moments. Her life is not an easy one, aside from the daily grind of being one of the best athletes on the planet. But do not feel sorry for Serena.
“I was making errors that I never make, and definitely I didn’t make in this tournament in particular,” she explained. “So many simple, simple shots that I easily could have made.”
Her body failed. Pliskova overwhelmed her. The serve in particular was lethal from the Czech Republic native.
“Karolina played great today. I thought she served well today, and that was definitely was a big thing for her,” Serena said. “I wasn’t at 100%, but I also think she played well. She deserved to win.”
Williams wasn’t tired as Chrissie Evert repeated over and over last night on ESPN, as if her singular assessment was absolutely correct. “She’s tired … this is what happens with age … yep, that match with Halep really wore out Serena.”
“Okay, I’m not going to repeat myself,” Williams began. “I wasn’t tired from yesterday’s match. I’m a professional player. Been playing for over 20 years. If I can’t turn around after 24 hours and play again then I shouldn’t be on tour. I was totally okay. [Being tired] had absolutely nothing to do with it. We play every single week, sometimes Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.”
No. Do not feel sorry for Serena.
She has had the privilege of playing in 18 U. S. Opens, which she’s won six times. In 2014, she won and then went on to win the next three Majors for a second ‘Serena Slam,’ a coveted accomplishment in her book of records. She stumbled in New York against Vinci, but followed up with two runner-up trophies from this year’s Australian Open and Roland Garros … then a sweet 22-victory at Wimbledon. And don’t forget, Serena has four Olympic gold medals: one in singles and three in doubles alongside her beloved sister, Venus. That’s twice the amount Andy Murray has in his trophy case.
What we can feel for Serena is grief. That she’s gone. That she is the American who has buoyed the nation’s presence at the U. S. Open while the men have fallen far below the mark. No American male singles player has made it past the fourth of the Open in five years. The last time Serena Williams didn’t make it past the fourth round was 2006. In the nine years that followed she played one quarterfinal, 3 semifinals, and won four titles.
Williams will turn 35 this month. Pliskova is 24. Garbine Muguruza, who downed Williams at Roland Garros final, is 22. Angelique Kerber, the new number one in women’s tennis, is 28. And, Elina Svitolina, who defeated Serena at the Rio Olympics is 21.
Aging is a grievous notion for Williams, what with her perfectionism and pride. It’s also daunting for fans to consider. There is no substitute for Serena. Never will be, which is good. She’ll stand alone in history. We hope she can fully appreciate what she’s given us. We hope fans and not-such-keen fans can fully appreciate her life’s work in front of us, threw international camera lenses, on stages that can appear as lonely as the sea.