Williams is still great, but her aura is diminished after third consecutive loss in a Slam final
By Jerry Bembry
Just a year ago, Serena Williams lost in the Wimbledon final to Angelique Kerber, a defeat that came 10 months after she had a baby.
Her play? Admirable.
Just 10 months ago, Williams lost in the final of the US Open in a match marred by a controversial ending.
Her performance in beating three higher-seeded players leading up to that final? Formidable.
On Saturday, Williams reached her third Grand Slam final since returning to competition at Indian Wells in March of last year. She faced the only player in women’s tennis, Simona Halep, who has played in more Grand Slam finals than Williams during that span (four).
Her accomplishment in reaching the 2019 Wimbledon final? Stellar.
But being admirable, formidable and stellar are meaningless in Williams’ pursuit to tie, and then surpass, the record for most Grand Slam singles titles in women’s tennis history. And getting crushed 6-2, 6-2 by Halep in a final that took less than an hour leaves us with a crucial question as Williams chases history:
How many chances does she have left to break the record?
Williams, 37, has not won a set in her last three Grand Slam finals. Asked in her news conference after Saturday’s match whether it will become more difficult to win majors as time passes, she paused as she contemplated the question.
“I don’t know,” Williams said. “I don’t think about it. I just go out there and play and see what happens.
What happened these last two weeks was that Williams had a table that was perfectly set leading up to the final. Despite, playing in the bracket labeled the “Group of Death,” Williams was able to avoid the six Grand Slam champions in the group (Kerber, Maria Sharapova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Ashleigh Barty, Samantha Stosur and Svetlana Kuznetsova). The final against 27-year-old Halep, the No. 7 seed, was Williams’ first match of the two-week tournament against a player considered to be on her level.
Those levels in tennis, which used to be Serena Williams on one and the rest of the field on another, have evened out since Williams left the game to have a baby after winning the 2017 Australian Open. Halep, in beating Williams, is one of only two players with multiple wins in major tournaments since that 2017 Australian Open (Naomi Osaka is the other), as nine different women have won the last 11 Grand Slam titles.
Halep represents the problems that Williams faces in her attempt to win her 24th Grand Slam singles title, which would tie the record held by Margaret Court. The new Wimbledon champion has youth on her side, which Williams can’t control. But it’s hard to ignore Williams getting picked apart by players who are quicker and more powerful. With players on the horizon like 15-year-old Coco Gauff, who easily defeated Venus Williams in her Wimbledon debut, these outcomes will become the norm.
Williams said last week that watching Tiger Woods win the Masters earlier this year was inspirational, and for good reason. The two legends, who are good friends and talk often, have journeys with many things in common. Both demonstrated greatness as teenagers, both became the dominant figures in their sports, both endured injuries, both came back from different circumstances, and both have proven, despite their ages, that they can still play at the highest level.
“Tiger, obviously, what he did at the Masters was on top of my mind,” Williams said last week about Woods, who plays in The Open next week, and other athletes who experienced late-career success, like quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. “Those athletes are incredibly inspiring. That’s one thing that keeps me moving forward.”
Something else that Williams will need as she moves forward is court time. Outside of the three majors she’s played in this year, Williams has played in only three other tournaments.
That was enough to get her into a Grand Slam final. But that won’t be sufficient if Williams wants to win.
When Williams lost the Wimbledon final to Kerber last year, which ended her miraculous run in the 2018 tournament, I wrote: “Make no mistake: Williams is back. … Right now, 24 seems like just a matter of time.”
It’s a record I still believe Williams will earn one day. But as the only women’s player to appear in multiple Grand Slam finals since the 2016 US Open without a win, the clock is ticking. These opportunities will dwindle for Williams, as well as for 37-year-old Roger Federer, who plays in the men’s final on Sunday.
“Yeah, no matter which way you look at it, [Federer and I are] not going to be out here in the next three, four, five years,” Williams said at her news conference. “The time is now to get out there and to watch us play, I guess.”
In her prime, Williams walking onto center court for a Grand Slam final had the feel of Mike Tyson walking into the ring pre-Buster Douglas, and Michael Jordan reaching the NBA Finals pre-Washington Wizards. The combination of talent and aura was too much for opponents to overcome.
Williams is still great, but her aura, in losing three straight Slams, is clearly diminished.
Asked on Saturday about her pursuit of 24 majors, Williams said she’s better off not thinking about it.
“I just have to keep going and keep trying and keep working,” Williams said. “It’s just go out and do the best you can do.”
In pursuit of 24, we’ll see if the best that Williams can muster in the near future is good enough.
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.