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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Serena Williams prepares to retire as U.S. Open ends Slam year

    Serena Williams practices at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday before the start of the U.S. Open in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

    New York — Thanks to Serena Williams, this U.S. Open will be like none other.

    Whether or not it actually does turn out to be the final event of her lengthy, storied and influential playing career — and in professional tennis, perhaps more than in any other sport, goodbyes sometimes end up being see-you-agains — the two-week hard-court tournament that begins Monday at Flushing Meadows and wraps up the 2022 Grand Slam calendar will be, first and foremost, about Williams.

    As long as she remains in the field, at least.

    That's fitting, because so much of the past two decades and then some of tennis, in general, and at the U.S. Open, in particular, have been about Williams, who turns 41 next month. There is that unmistakable skill with a racket in hand and indiminishable drive to be the best that led to 23 major singles championships, the No. 1 ranking and Olympic gold medals, and that transcendent, attention-demanding quality that made her a celebrity as much as a superstar athlete.

    "In my view, she revolutionized tennis," said Chris Evert, who won 18 majors in the 1970s and 1980s. "She revolutionized the power in the game. And I feel like she really inspired women of color, because we've seen a lot more women of color playing the game. And I think that she's changed the way women compete, as far as it's OK to be ferocious and passionate and vocal out there, emotional out there on the court, and still be a woman."

    The ways in which Williams — and, to be sure, her older sister, 42-year-old Venus, the owner of seven Slam singles titles herself and Serena's partner for 14 major doubles trophies — changed the game are varied and numerous, and extend beyond the way their speedy serves and booming groundstrokes prompted, or even forced, other players to try to either match that style or figure out how to try to counter it.

    "There was something inside both of them," said Rick Macci, a tennis coach who worked with both Williams siblings in the early 1990s, starting before they were teenagers. "When we competed or did competitive drills, I just saw something I never saw. They tried so hard to get to a ball, they almost fell over. Now you can try hard; that doesn't mean you're going to be world champion. But it was just another level."

    Williams has said she doesn't know how to define her legacy, but it is all around, whether embodied by players who credit her with being an inspiration, such as French Open runner-up Coco Gauff, or in rules changes that clearly, or at least likely, are a product of episodes involving her.

    One example: A line can be drawn to the decision this year by the U.S. Tennis Association to allow in-match coaching for women and men at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time from the chaotic 2018 U.S. Open final in which Williams ended up being docked a game after being warned about receiving instructions from her then-coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, during a loss to Naomi Osaka.

    Another example: The proliferation of electronic line-calling, to the point that there are no line judges at U.S. Open matches anymore, can be traced back to a 2004 quarterfinal match at Flushing Meadows in which multiple erroneous rulings went against Williams during a loss to Jennifer Capriati.

    At the U.S. Open alone, there were other run-ins with officials (Who can forget the foot-fault brouhaha in her 2009 semifinal against Kim Clijsters), groundbreaking fashion choices (A catsuit in 2002; knee-high boots two years later) and plenty of triumphs, dating all the way back to 1999, when a 17-year-old Williams beat Martina Hingis for her initial Grand Slam trophy.

    So Arthur Ashe Stadium would provide a fitting backdrop for a farewell, although Williams did not quite explicitly say that she would never compete again after the U.S. Open while telling the world via an essay in Vogue magazine that she was prepared to begin "evolving away from tennis" to focus on having a second child and pursuing her business interests.

    Every time she steps on court in New York will be treated as if it might be the last time. That will begin with a first-round match against Danka Kovinic, a 27-year-old from Montenegro who is ranked 80th and has never been past the third round at a major tournament.

    It will be only the fifth singles match for Williams over the past 12 months, because the American was off the tour from a first-round injury at Wimbledon last year until a first-round loss there this year. Since returning from that hiatus, Williams is 1-3, including straight-set defeats against Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic and 2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu in her two most recent outings.

    There was a time — not all that long ago, in the scheme of things — that Williams was considered the favorite in every match and at every tournament, especially at the four events that matter the most in the sport.

    "I say: Don't underestimate her," said Evert, an ESPN analyst. "But the problem is the field. The problem is everybody else is getting better, too. ... There's a lot of good players out there now who, No. 1, aren't intimidated by her; and No. 2, know that she's not at her best at the moment; and No. 3, want to beat her."

    Two days before her loss to Bencic in Toronto, and a day before revealing her thoughts about retirement (a word she said she dislikes), Williams said at a news conference: "I can't do this forever."

    That's true, of course. No one, though, expects this to be the last the world hears of her, even if there really aren't any matches left to play.

    "At the end of the day, her biggest stage was tennis," said Macci, the Williams' coach from years ago, "but I think her greatest act is yet to come."

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