Serena Williams’ drive to earn Grand Slam singles title No. 24, thereby equaling the all-time record held by Margaret Court, will begin next week at the fan-free US Open. The tournament will be unlike any major that she, or any other tennis pro, has ever experienced.
This radical and unexpected development caused by the coronavirus pandemic has enabled every WTA and ATP player to hit the career reset button. Williams, too, can benefit from that. She has failed to win a major in her past eight appearances — the longest drought in her dazzling career. Of course, she’s also almost 39 years old. It may be difficult for some to accept that she’s not immortal, but the way she has played since the tour’s return (she’s 2-3 and all of those matches were knock-down, drag-out three-setters) confirms that she is.
But she’s still Serena Williams, and on a tennis court, that means anything is possible. ESPN analysts Chris Evert and Pam Shriver help puzzle out five things Williams needs to do, or should focus on, if she hopes to bag that elusive 24th title Aug. 31 through Sept. 13 in Flushing Meadows, New York.
Slam the door
Williams, probably the greatest “closer” ever to play the game, was up by a set and break late in her match with Maria Sakkari on Wednesday at the Western & Southern Open, but she let it get away. “It was tough. I literally should have won that match,” she said afterward. “I had so many opportunities to win. I have to figure that one out — like how to start winning those matches again. There is really no excuse, to be honest.”
Wasting opportunities has become a pattern in Williams’ matches, and that has to be troubling to her camp.
Shriver’s take: “The Serena who was winning majors fought off a ton of break points, and she often served her way out of trouble. So Serena has to wipe the hard drive clean of many recent struggles. This [pandemic] period has been a good one for erasing bad memories, but there’s a lot of malware that needs to be cleared.”
Evert’s take: “Being a great closer has been her badge, what Serena has been known for. Her struggles with that just points to nerves, something she rarely had trouble with before. Serving her way out of trouble, being brave and successful on break points, those are parts of the mental game she has to get good at again.”
Granted, Williams doesn’t have the footwork or movement she did a decade ago. Some of that is age-related, and there’s nothing she can do about that. But there are different elements that go into movement, from cardiovascular fitness to focus to perhaps the most important quality of all, confidence. A player can do all the footwork drills on earth, but if she tenses up at key moments or if her confidence wavers, it almost always results in poor movement in what becomes a kind of vicious cycle.
It will be important for Williams to not get into a track meet. Even at the peak of her career, the ability to stay out there exchanging shots was never her style. Clarity of purpose and efficiency are of even greater importance now. There was one ray of light illuminating the way forward for Williams after her collapse against Sakkari.
After remarking on what a “heavy” ball Williams hit, the winner said, “It was a little bit tough to get used to her (Serena’s) timing, her serve and everything, her returning position. It looks like she’s covering … no, not it looks … she is covering a lot of the court.”
Evert’s take: “When I went out to play I always tried to keep it simple, telling myself: ‘Move your feet, accelerate and hit the ball, be confident.’ I think Serena has to simplify that way, not think too much about technique or five or six different things she needs to do. There’s a mental aspect to moving well, but cardio-based endurance and good footwork have to be, if not 100 percent, then at least solid.”
Shriver’s take: “Serena’s serve sets the table, and when things are flowing for her and she’s freed up, she’s fine. Movement becomes a little less important. But if things aren’t working for her, and she needs to play defense, that’s when I get uneasy. She hasn’t really gotten into that flow yet from what we’ve seen. It needs to be easier for her.”
Serve lights out
It’s no secret that the greatest weapon in Williams’ arsenal has been a serve that many rate as the best ever in the WTA game. She has routinely led the WTA Tour in break points saved, as well as service games won, and second-serve points won. Williams already is the all-time WTA leader in hard-court wins (501) despite having played a limited schedule for many years and missing long periods of play (including 15 majors) because of injury. And the new Laykold courts at the USTA National Tennis Center are, in the estimation of many, as much as 30 percent faster than last year.
Perhaps more important, when Williams is serving well, many other good things happen. Last year, her vaunted serve often lacked its signature bite as well as speed. There was some concern that she was losing power. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Serena blasted a few already at the NTC at around the 120 mph mark.
Shriver’s take: “The unexpected bonus to serving well is that it really improves your return, too. A player serving well tends to be more relaxed and return better because there’s a lack of pressure in the return games. Nothing is worse than when you’re having trouble holding and you know you have to break. That’s an uncomfortable place to be, and Serena, who has lived most of her life not in that place, needs to keep it that way.”
Evert’s take: “It’s 100 percent about serving for Serena, that’s a given. She has to hold serve and get a high percentage of first serves in for maximum effectiveness. The serve is still there, no doubt. She’s still serving her way out of trouble better than any other woman. Down love-40 she can still win her serve. So if it’s off, it will be because of nerves.”
It sounds like a simple bromide. Who doesn’t want to be fit, strong and injury-free? But it ought to be of particular concern to Williams. She has boasted about how hard she has worked and how fit she is, but she didn’t marshal and conserve her resources in the first two events of her return and it cost her dearly. Williams is the closest thing we have to a superwoman, but everyone has a limit. Williams hit hers in the third set of the match with Sakkari, barely putting in an effort and looking, at times, on the verge of crying.
Evert’s take: “Fitness is obviously going to be an issue. Serena has to be able to maintain being fresh and fit without injury for seven matches a row. Those close matches she has had to play on consecutive days after six months off were a rude awakening. But it should be easier at the Open, where she’ll have a day off between every match.”
Shriver’s take: “Those super-long matches she has played concern me. She’s not going to move like vintage Serena in the coming week, that’s a given. So the last thing she can afford is some kind of injury that might make her slow down a little more.”
Triumph over nerves
It was clear long before the pandemic forced the lockdown that Williams has been struggling with nerves, mostly due to the nature of her quest to catch Court. Simona Halep certainly played a great match in beating Williams in the 2019 Wimbledon final, but some of her other losses were simply baffling. At times, she has looked as if she’s in agony on the court, unable to get into what Shriver called “a flow.”
It might be very hard for Williams to reverse this sudden susceptibility in the one area where, for most of her career, she was nonpareil. But there’s a wild card in the conversation, and it’s the unique nature of this upcoming US Open. Many feel that without the degree of hype that typically surrounds Williams at the Open, she might be less prone to distraction, with a greater ability to focus and to cultivate and build on her confidence. Others aren’t so sure.
Shriver’s take: “Survive Week 1: That’s paramount. Without anybody here but the players and staff, it will be a quieter atmosphere. It may help lesser players early in the tournament, but if Serena can get to the 16s, and quarters, I think the still atmosphere will be good for her, given her history.”
Evert’s take: “The lack of a crowd will probably affect her opponents in a positive way. They will be coming out relaxed and loose, like it’s a glorified practice match with no tension. That works against Serena. It may also work against her that hype or not, she is a big-crowd player, and a huge crowd has lifted and helped her a lot more than working against her.”