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Slammed shut? Record getting further out of reach for Serena after US Open loss

A new wave of players inspired by Williams stands in her way of history

NEW YORK — After a Serena Williams forehand winner landed just beyond the reach of Bianca Andreescu early in the second set of the US Open final, a woman seated several rows behind the chair umpire rose to her feet and shouted, “Go get yours, queen!”

Williams was expected to get a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title at Arthur Ashe Stadium, which would have marked her first major win since she had a baby in 2017. Instead, those fans witnessed Williams overwhelmed 6-3, 7-5 by a 19-year-old who represents a new wave of players that the best player of her generation has birthed: young, fierce stars who want to replicate Williams’ dominance.

Which leaves a major question for Williams as she ends the year still in pursuit of Margaret Court’s record: Can she still reach it? Or is losing four straight majors over the past two years against four different women without winning a set an indication that her window is creeping shut?

“I can definitely say I’m not really happy, but I have to take it one moment at a time,” Williams said after the match. “I honestly didn’t play my best. … It’s inexcusable for me to play at that level.”

Serena Williams reacts during her US Open women’s singles final match against Bianca Andreescu at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on Sept. 7.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

That level for Williams — 33 unforced errors, 44% of first serves in play — was well below her standard, particularly for someone who hardly broke a sweat in winning her previous two matches in straight sets. But most inexcusable for Williams were the eight double faults that came at crucial moments: consecutive ones to lose her first service game, which put Williams in an early hole, and five of them in the second set as she was attempting a comeback.

“I was thinking, OK, Serena, you didn’t miss a serve, you lost serve maybe twice in the whole tournament,” Williams said. “And you didn’t hit a first serve in today. … How do I play at a level like this in a final?”

There are likely multiple answers to that question.

  • Age: Williams is 37 years old and, as brilliantly as she has performed in reaching two major finals this year, you can see the physical challenges she’s facing against younger, more energized opponents.
  • Family: Williams is a mother and, as she spoke glowingly last week about taking her adorable daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., to a trampoline park, you can understand that her devotion now is family and tennis, likely in that order. “My day off isn’t a day off; I’m literally hanging out with baby,” Williams said two days before the match. “I think being on the court is almost a little bit more relaxing than hanging out with a 2-year-old that’s dragging you everywhere.”
  • A new breed of young opponents: Players like Andreescu and 21-year-old Naomi Osaka, both winners over Williams in the last two US Open finals, didn’t spend their entire career being demoralized as a result of losing to Williams. Andreescu, quick and concise in her shot selection and borderline cocky as she screamed on winners, had actually admitted on the eve of the match that she wanted to play Williams.

“Oh, yeah,” Andreescu said. “I remember always telling my team I would have always wanted to play her right before she retires.”

Andreescu has now beaten Williams twice in less than a month. A year ago she entered US Open qualifying ranked No. 208; now she’s ranked No. 15 in the world and on the verge of becoming a top-10 player.

Serena Williams (left) applauds Bianca Andreescu (right) during the trophy presentation after the women’s singles final of the 2019 US Open. Andreescu won 6-3, 7-5.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Williams, even with the loss, will remain in the top 10 (she’ll be No. 9 in the new rankings). She has played in more Slam Finals in the last two years (four) than any other player on tour. She showed, in fighting back from being down 5-1 in the second set, that she is still among the elite players in the sport.

But is there a path to No. 24 for Williams, in a sport where nine of the last 11 majors have been won by different women? With Andreescu’s win, four different women have won the majors in 2019 (along with Simona Halep, Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka), 2018 (Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Halep and Caroline Wozniacki) and 2017 (Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko). Three of the last five Slams have been won by first-time winners.

Williams’ winning four Slams in a row in 2014-15 marks the last time there was a dominant women’s player. But players now realize the “queen” is no longer at the top of her game and they have a chance to sit on the throne.

For Williams, she’ll continue to play on.

“I’m not necessarily chasing a record, I’m just trying to win Grand Slams,” Williams said, sounding like she’s chasing a record. “I just am still here. I’m still doing what I can do.”

Which is regroup, and recharge. The Serena Williams who played this year was vastly improved from the player who came back a year ago: Her movement was better, her shots were more precise and her conditioning led her to two more major finals.

And yet, with a table perfectly set to win her 24th major — in a field where all the top seeds were long eliminated, and in a final against a teenage opponent who had never played on a big stage — Williams came up short.

Again.

“I honestly don’t think Serena showed up,” Williams said afterward. “I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slam finals.”

With Williams turning 38 later this month, and with this new group of hungry players (including Coco Gauff) on the horizon, it will be a tougher challenge than ever.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.