Serena Williams falls short again at the U.S. Open, and winning that elusive 24th major won’t get any easier from here
FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – This is the hard part for Serena Williams.
The championships were comparatively easy. All 23 of them starting with the US Open in 1999. But four straight Grand Slam finals she has stood there watching herself play tennis that just isn’t enough to get her to a goal, tying Margaret Court’s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
And if you’ve made it this far, you know the U.S. Open final didn’t go Williams’ way either.
“I'm, like, so close, so close, so close, yet so far away,” Williams said. “I don't know what to say. I guess I got to keep going if I want to be a professional tennis player. And I just got to just keep fighting through it.”
Since having her daughter Olympia two years ago, the 37-year-old is a tennis version of Sisyphus, the Greek king condemned forever to roll a boulder up a hill only to near the summit and watch it roll back down.
In her case, the boulder is a very recognizable neon yellow.
After a 6-3, 7-5 loss to 19-year-old Canadian Bianca Andreescu, Williams is 0-for-4 in finals in the last two years. Andreescu was ranked No. 15 coming into the Open, had one tournament title to her name in Toronto, and exited last year’s tournament in the first round of the qualifying draw. On Saturday, she exemplified the same fire and power that Williams is known for.
“We like to keep the points short with our aggressive game style,” Andreescu said. “We like to use our serve to our advantage. I think we fight really, really hard. But at the same time I want to make a name for myself.”
Andreescu won the toss and elected to receive, unusual for a match with these stakes, but the move showcased a solid return game. Andreescu broke Williams for the first game coming back from a 40-15 hole, and then consolidated that break with a hold.
Williams’ second service game steadied the seven-time Open champ. The first point required her to get a drop shot from Andreescu, and then smash the reverberating shot emphatically toward the Canadian, who had come to net. Williams roared, and went on to take the game down 2-1.
It didn’t get any better to start the second, however. Williams double-faulted to go down 0-2. But then, after conjuring four break points against Andreescu in the third game, Williams got her first break when a forehand clipped the net and landed too short for a scrambling 15th-seed to reach. They were back on serve at 2-1 Andreescu.
Williams broke again and then held to get back on serve at 5-5. Here’s how: a 118 mph ace, a double-fault, a 119 mph ace, a double-fault and then two points won in play for the hold.
The crowd roared such that Andreescu had to cover her ears, saying she couldn’t hear herself think with all the noise. Williams’ player box held Meghan Markle and Anna Wintour, with celebrities Taye Diggs, Taraji P. Henson and gymnast Aly Raisman in the stands.
“I just couldn’t go down like that,” Williams said.
But she did go down. With a third set a real possibility, Andreescu pulled up to hold and then break Williams, her last point coming with a winner on a return of serve.
Williams only got 44 percent of her first serves in play, and had 33 unforced errors to Andreescu’s 17. Williams also had eight double-faults to three for Andreescu.
How much of the match was about another young player who had ripened into a U.S. Open champion, and how much was about the legend across the net who is stuck at 23?
“I feel like in 20 years, I definitely will be like, Wow, that wasn’t so bad,” Williams said. “It’s very hard right now in the moment to, like, take this and say, ‘It didn’t work out for you today,’ but it’s really hard right now to take that moment in and to say you did okay, because I don’t believe I did.”
Williams doesn’t try to make the story about herself, but she has been more candid in post-game interviews. Athletes with a quiver of cliches are rarely criticized, but they don’t help flesh out the story either. And Williams was honest. “I believe I could have played better,” she said. “I believe I could have done more. I believe I could have just been more Serena today. I honestly don’t think Serena showed up.
“I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slam finals.”
She has until January to figure out how to get the boulder rolling back up that hill. Time to contemplate the distance between 37 and retirement, and how many other finals remain in her future. She has to balance them against days with her daughter, possible siblings, and the hunger of all the young women she might find across the net when the task is almost completed.
“I've really strived to be like her,” Andreescu said. “Who knows? Maybe I can be even better.”
Take that one Serena, and pin it to the bulletin board.