No matter what happens in the U.S. Open final, Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all-time. Undisputed. The fact that she got this far in the tournament as a 36-year-old mother just reinforces that she’s better than whomever else you’re considering.
But regarding her legacy, we’d like to nitpick. This is no fault of Serena’s, but the competition over the last decade-plus has been, in a word, underwhelming.
Ever since her sister Venus fell off the mantle, the concert that is women’s tennis has felt like Serena and the Pips. On the surface, Naomi Osaka, who will face Serena in Saturday’s final, is just a member of the rotating cast of B-listers.
Osaka is only 20 and could develop into something special, but she also has never advanced past the fourth round of a Grand Slam before this U.S. Open. In the last 12 years, the only woman to win more than three majors is Serena, who has 16 over that time. A victory Saturday would tie her with Margaret Court for the most career Grand Slam titles (24), and most of Court’s victories occurred as an amateur.
Even when Serena was out for an extended period of time — like in 2011 (pulmonary embolism) or 2017 (child birth) — the rest of the field just splits the championships, without a serious contender for the throne emerging.
Put it another way: Margaret Court had Billie Jean King; Martina Navratilova had Chris Evert; Steffi Graf had Navratilova and Monica Seles; Roger Federer has Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. They made the other one better, offering thrilling tennis on top of compelling storylines. Serena has. …nobody.
Attempts to push Maria Sharapova as Serena’s rival are about one thing: Sharapova is marketable and could pass for a runway model. When it comes to tennis, there was no drama. Serena beat her 19 times in 21 matchups. Venus hasn’t beaten her sister in a Grand Slam since 2008.
The thing about rivalries (real rivalries) is that, aside from generating entertainment and classic matches, they theoretically make it more difficult to amass career records. How many titles would Navratilova have if Evert didn’t win 18? How many of Andre Agassi’s eight titles would Pete Sampras have collected?
Father Time would tell us Serena is approaching retirement. Except that’s not what she sounds like, or is playing like.
Claiming she’s only about “50 or 60 percent” physically after a difficult pregnancy from about a year ago, Serena has dropped only one set en route to the final.
“To come from that, in the hospital bed, not being able to move and walk and do anything, now only a year later, I’m not training, but I’m actually in these finals, in two in a row. Like I said, this is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still,” she said. “I just feel like not only is my future bright, even though I’m not a spring chicken, but I still have a very, very bright future. That is super exciting for me.”