FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — Twenty-four thousand tennis fans and one Duchess of Sussex gathered in Arthur Ashe Stadium on a cool September Saturday in New York City, hoping to witness a coronation of Serena Williams, a player cut from unmistakable tennis royalty.
What they took in, instead, was quite possibly the most crushing defeat of Williams’ iconic career, a 6-3, 7-5 result in a women’s final that showcased the utter fearlessness and resolve of a Canadian teenager, Bianca Andreescu, and a Serena Williams who at times was scarcely recognizable.
And so Williams’ US Open title total remains at six, and her major victory total remains stuck at 23, one short of Margaret Court’s record 24. Williams desperately wanted to achieve this record at the US Open, where she is loved as nowhere else, with Her Royal Highness, Meghan Markle, in her box, along with her usual people. That she didn’t doesn’t mean she is not the greatest player in the history of the sport, because she is.
It just means this is really hard to do, especially when you are a 37-year-old mother and the oldest finalist in the Open era. It’s fair to ask how many more final chances there will be.
“I think this was the worst match I’ve played all tournament,” Williams said. “It’s inexcusable to play at that level.”
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Williams fought back heroically from 1-5 down, championship point staring at her like an onrushing subway train, to square the match at five, before it all went wrong in the final two games. Her great misfortune was to be across the net from a kid like the 19-year-old Andreescu, who was ranked No. 178 in the world this time last year and played her first Grand Slam final as if she’d been doing it for years.
This was Williams’ fourth straight final loss since she gave birth to her daughter two years ago, and by far the most painful. At Wimbledon this year, Simona Halep threw the tennis equivalent of a perfect game to beat her. At last year’s Open, Naomi Osaka, three code violations and a spat with chair umpire Carlos Ramos combined to make for a perfectly wretched experience, but as Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratogloou, said, Williams was neither fully fit or ready to compete for a title so soon after giving birth.
This year, though, was different. It seemed to be all lined up for Williams. She demolished Maria Sharapova in the first round. After a slight wobble against 17-year-old American Caty McNally (remember that name) in the second round, she steamrolled everybody. In the previous two rounds – quarters and semis – she lost a total of five games. That is insane dominance.
But with all of the crowd support and six rounds of superb work, the Duchess and most everyone else thought beating Andreescu would be a formality, until two problems ensued.
First, there was Andreescu’s competitive makeup. Most players – even top players – lose to Williams before they even strike a ball, because they are so intimidated by her legend, her power, her aura. Andreescu’s attitude was essentially: Serena’s amazing. Now let’s get it on.
“She set the tone from the very beginning that she was not going to be pushed around,” Sylvain Bruneau, Andreescu’s coach, told USA TODAY Sports. “She’s not scared. She goes for it.”
The second problem was that Williams had as bad a day of serving as she has ever had. Through the first six rounds, she had won 51 of 54 service games. Saturday, she lost more services games (six) than she won (five), and didn’t even get half of her first serves (34 of 77, 44 percent) in play. She was broken three times on double faults, and had eight doubles in all.
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Andreescu returned splendidly and bravely, for sure, but Williams also sabotaged herself, and you could see the weight of that in her body language, hanging on her like a 500-pound sack.
Understand that her serve is not just the greatest weapon in the sport; it’s psychological fuel for her, the mojo that she can always count on to win points and matches even if other parts of her game are a bit off.
The serve was way off, and so was everything else. Williams had almost double the errors that Andreescu had (33 to 17). In the fifth game of the second set, she actually had a checked swing of sorts, starting to swing, stopping, then swinging again, launching the ball wide.
Williams turns 38 later this month. She has been runner-up in four major finals in the last two years, so there can be no doubt she remains a premier player. But this racket – pardon the pun – is not going to get any easier. You have to win seven matches to capture a major. Twenty years after winning her first major title right here in Ashe, Williams has proven very adept at winning the first six of those matches, but not so adept thereafter.
She talked about the deep disappointment and frustration about being “so close, so close, so close, yet so far away,” and about how the real Serena Williams didn’t show up today.
“I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slam finals,” Williams said.
Follow Wayne Coffey on Twitter @wr_coffey
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