Serena Williams threw her hands up into the air and sat down on the pavement.
For Williams, the 2017 Australian Open final was a moment of triumph. She had finally passed Steffi Graf for total majors in yet another grand slam final against Venus.
Margaret Court’s “record” 24 majors, which is dubious due to the Australian Open being largely an amateur event, was surely next.
Williams was, understandably, out of tennis for a long time. She made her Grand Slam return at the 2018 French Open, but her life had changed. Tennis wasn’t as much of a priority anymore for Williams and she just didn’t have the spark she once had.
Williams came close to that elusive 24th Major on many occasions. In both 2018 and 2019 she made the final of Wimbledon and the US Open.
Yet, she never won a set in any of those Major finals. She was always just a little short. To be fair, she played top competition in all of those finals. Players like Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, and Bianca Andreescu are difficult opponents for anybody on the WTA Tour.
Yet, Serena Williams seemed to find a way in the past. Not anymore.
The top-notch controlled aggression she once produced with ease becoming more difficult to contain. Her foot speed was also just a little below what it once was.
Yet, the biggest difference in Williams’ game was her mentality. Gone were the days like at the 2014 US Open, where Williams never lost more than three games in a set. Instead, we have seen Williams doubt herself more and more.
It might be the (good) distractions that having a child can bring to a tennis player’s life; It might be the weight of Margaret Court’s questionable record and the desire to not have a homophobe hold the top record in women’s tennis. Or it might just be her older age.
To be honest, it’s probably all of these things. But, it’s becoming more-and-more pertinent for Serena to win a major soon, as realistically Williams doesn’t have many more years as a top player.
Enter 2020 US Open, stage left.
There is no better place for Williams to match Court’s record than this year’s US Open.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and injuries, the field for the women’s US Open is much weaker than it would normally be.
As of when this article is written, six of the top eight players in the WTA rankings have pulled out of the event. Overall, 27 players have pulled the plug, including six former Grand Slam champions.
The field is depleted; the chance for Williams is now. She might be able to win in a regular Grand Slam, but there won’t likely be a field with this few players capable of beating her ever again.
And when the women’s draw came out, Williams’ opportunity to win grew. The No. 3 seed, Williams takes on Kristie Ahn in the first round. Ahn doesn’t have the power nor the rally tolerance to trouble Williams.
In the second round, Williams would play either Monica Puig or Margarita Gasparyan. Puig is struggling mightily with her consistency from the baseline and recently lost to Katie Volynets in Cincinnati qualifying. Gasparyan hasn’t won a set in either Lexington nor Cincinnati qualifying. It’s hard to see either troubling Williams.
The seed in Williams’ mini-section is No. 26 seed Sloane Stephens. Stephens has had a miserable year, winning only one official match so far in 2020. Since tennis’ return, Stephens has yet to win a set and looks to mentally not be engaged.
Potential seeded Round of 16 players for Williams include the inconsistent No. 22 seed Amanda Anisimova and the No. 15 seed Maria Sakkari. Sakkari just beat Williams at the Western & Southern Open, but Williams served for the match and was a couple points away from victory on multiple occasions. Williams is the better player and should prevail in a rematch.
The highest seed in Williams’ quarter is No. 7 seed Madison Keys. Williams holds a 3-0 head to head against Keys and has not dropped a set. Serena’s able to control her power better than Keys, which has been crucial in this matchup. Keys also looked very shaky against Ons Jabeur in her first match in “Cincinnati.”
Williams is on 2020 Australian Open champion and No. 2 seed Sofia Kenin’s side of the draw. Kenin had a rough straight sets loss to Alize Cornet in her first “Cincinnati” match and it remains to be seen if she can pick up her level enough to make the semifinals this year.
And if Williams can make the final, who knows how that last match will go.
Now, of course this is a little optimistic. The level Williams displayed in her quarterfinals loss to Shelby Rogers in Lexington and Round of 16 at the Western & Southern Open to Sakkari isn’t nearly good enough to win a major.
Not to mention she was pouting for a lot of the latter stages of the match against Sakkari. Mentally, she will need to be focused and ruthless.
But, if not this Major, it’s harder to see Serena Williams winning another.
The player field and the draw have fallen into place for Williams. If she just tries to go for, perhaps, 10% less on her groundstrokes and focuses on making first serves. If she focuses on the positives of her tennis instead of getting down on herself.
Williams told the WTA after her recent loss to Sakkari, “It’s hard to play the way I’ve been playing and…to stay positive.”
Williams will need to both raise her game and have a positive attitude to win a major for the 24th time.
Main Photo from Getty.