Serena Williams has never believed in the value of keeping expectations low. But if there was ever a time when she was going to accept something less than her best, it might have been in 2018 and 2019. In 2017, just before turning 36, she gave birth to her first child. Major-winning mothers have been few and far between. And 36-year-old mothers on tour? Serena was entering new territory.
> Naturally, she entered it undaunted.
After playing just seven matches over the first six months of 2018, she reached the Wimbledon final. Then, after playing three matches over the summer, she reached the US Open final. When 2019 began, Serena seemed ready to take her place on the sport’s mountaintop again.
“I always expect to reach the sky, and anything below it is not good enough for me,” Serena said at the Australian Open. “I just think now that I’m going in the right direction.”
A week later, when Serena beat world No. 1 Simona Halep in the fourth round, she sounded as hungry for success as a tour rookie: “Each day, each match, each tournament I’m learning something,” Williams said. “I think today I’m just learning that I can—I have to fight for titles. I have to fight for matches. Actually, I don’t have any titles yet, but I’m just fighting for matches.
At that moment, it would have been hard for Serena, or anyone else, to believe that six months later she would still be without a title in her comeback. Rather than a return to glory, Serena’s 2019 has been a mix of promising performances and unfortunate setbacks, nagging injuries and ill-timed illnesses.
At the Australian Open, she led Karolina Pliskova 5–1 in third set of their quarterfinal before rolling her ankle. At Indian Wells, she beat Victoria Azarenka before retiring with a viral illness in her next match. In Miami and Rome, she withdrew with injuries. At the French Open, she lost to unproven Sofia Kenin. At Wimbledon, she made it to the final before falling to Halep in just 56 minutes.
“Grueling,” was how Serena described her ups and downs. Was age finally taking its toll? As the US Open approached, Williams tried to find inspiration in her results from 2018.
“I feel like I’ve had some great runs last year, and I’m hoping to still build on that this year,” she said.
Would anyone be surprised if Serena had her final hurrah, after all? It’s hard to imagine her settling for anything less.
Which brings us to Serena’s return to Flushing Meadows. Last year’s US Open final, which Williams lost to Naomi Osaka, was one of the sport’s all-time anticlassics. By its end, it had devolved into a chaotic contretemps between Serena and chair umpire Carlos Ramos, one that would become a proxy for wider questions about gender and race.
A year later, we look back on that wild, unhappy night through the eyes of a former US Open champion, a journalist, a photographer, a former chair umpire and a tennis-loving author. As you’ll see, Osaka vs. Serena hasn’t faded in people’s memories, and the question of who was at fault, and what it all meant, is still in the eyes of the beholder.
> Lindsay Davenport:
1998 US Open champion and Tennis Channel commentator I was calling the match with Mary [Carillo] that night, and I was looking forward to seeing Serena try to tie the major title record. I’d also been helping out Madison Keys during the tournament, and I’d watched Osaka, who beat Madison in the semifinals, up close. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, she’s improved so much.’ Over the course of the two weeks in Flushing Meadows, Naomi was so much more disciplined than before; she was setting up for her shots and going for them at the right time. It was obvious she had put in a lot of work. I said to Madison’s agent, Max [Eisenbud], ‘She’s going to start winning Slams.’ He said, ‘You mean, now?’ I said, ‘I think she’s going to do it.’
> Rowan Ricardo Phillips:
Author of The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey I was confident in where Serena’s game was, because of how she had handled [Anastasija] Sevastova in the semis. I thought that match was going to be Roberta Vinci all over again. [Vinci upset Williams in the 2015 Open semifinals.] Sevastova has the same slice and finesse. But Serena was in control of the situation. I also thought it would help her to have played Osaka before [Osaka beat Serena in Miami earlier that year, 6–3, 6–2], so she would know what to expect. Naomi’s game would play into Serena’s groove.
> Anita Aguilar: Photographer for TENNIS.com There was a lot of stress and anticipation among the photographers that day. There’s always stress before a final, because you’ve waited two weeks to capture the tournament-winning moment. But there was even more energy this time, because Serena was in her comeback year, and she could tie the Slam record.
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