FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — It was a somber day in New Yor
k, a day of remembrance, a day of reflection. American flags hung over parkway overpasses along the Hutchinson, the Sprain, the Taconic. New Yorkers observed poignant moments of silence, first at 8:46 a.m., then at 9:03 a.m., the exact times the planes struck the towers. Traffic below 53rd Street in Manhattan crawled as metal barricades kept cars away from Ground Zero, where thousands gathered to memorialize victims of 9/11.
Tennis seemed so inconsequential on such a day. But a decade after those tragic moments, Serena Williams had a chance to give Americans something to smile about, to celebrate. Sport has a way of doing that, of making people forget the hard times, even if only for a brief moment.
That pressure to deliver on such a solemn day may have been too much for Williams on Sunday against Samantha Stosur in the U.S. Open final. The runaway favorite despite her lowly 28th seeding, she hadn’t dropped a set all week and was 18-0 on hard courts this year. Seeking her fourth U.S. Open title and her 14th Slam overall, it had been 12 years since Williams first raised the trophy inside Ashe Stadium as the beaded-and-cornrowed 17-year-old kid sister of Venus Williams. She’s overcome so much since, most recently a pair of foot surgeries and a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.
Now only weeks away from 30, Williams said she was playing for the people of the United States. She came out firing, kicking off the match with a 95 mph ace out wide. But it was Stosur — with a ferocious forehand and aggressive all-court movement — who scored the first break of the match at 1-all, when a Williams backhand sailed beyond the baseline. Williams managed to fight off a break point in the fifth game of the opening set, but Stosur suddenly looked downright dominant. She held at love to go up 4-2, subsequently broke Williams at love, then served out the set at love. Williams, calm, cool and collected all week, even tossed her racket to the court in disgust, something we hadn’t seen much of during her summer hard-court tear.
CBS frontman Dick Enberg, calling his last U.S. Open, asked, “Who is this woman masquerading as a three-time champion?”
Williams was again in trouble early in the second set. Facing break point in the first game at 30-40, she smacked what appeared to be a clean forehand winner to the corner. But there was a catch. Sure she had hit a winner, she screamed out “C’MON!” before Stosur got a chance to get her racket on the ball. Chair umpire Eva Asderaki awarded Stosur the point, and the all-important break, due to what’s known in the intentional hindrance rule.
Williams strongly begged to differ, shouting her disapproval at Asderaki.
“Aren’t you the one who screwed me over last time?” she asked.
It was unclear as to whom Williams was referring. It was Mariana Alves who infamously goofed in Williams’ quarterfinal loss to Jennifer Capriati in 2004 — a match that is credited with leading to the introduction of Hawk-Eye line-calling technology. And it was Louise Engzell in the chair when Williams was ejected in her semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters in 2009.
Seeing Serena shaking her racket, it was déjà vu all over again. A long round of boos circled the stadium and several minutes went by until order was restored.
“I hit a winner, but I guess it didn’t count,” Williams would later observe. “I guess I need to read the rulebook.”
“Everything happened so quickly out there, and you’re trying to get to the ball and play every single shot,” recalled Stosur. “I guess the rules of tennis are there for a reason. She made the call that she felt was right.”
“Anger is an incredible fuel for Serena Williams,” said Mary Carillo. “Two years ago it got her thrown out of this joint. This time it could help her win the title.”
The pause momentarily sapped the Brisbane-born baseliner’s momentum, and Williams soon had three chances to break back, following through on her third to even the match at 1-1. After holding serve, she continued to jaw at Asderaki during the changeover, saying, “What a loser…You’re a hater…You’re out of control…You’re an unattractive person inside…A code violation because I express who I am? We’re in America last time I checked…If you ever see me walking down the hall, walk the other way.”
“I tried to get more fired up, kind of get more into it and kind of, just, get more ‘Serena-esque’ and into the match,” Williams later told reporters.
Williams was hit with a code violation for verbal abuse of Asderaki. According to tournament referee Brian Earley, the USTA will review the incident to determine whether the violation will result in a fine. Any impact the incident might have on Williams’ Grand Slam probation, which stems for the foot-fault incident of ’09, would require it being ruled “a major event.”
Just when it seemed Williams had turned the tide with her outburst, Stosur was back in control. The Aussie broke Williams to surge ahead 4-3, held serve, then put pressure on Williams’ serve to earn a pair of match points. Williams fought off one, then two. But she couldn’t fight off the inevitable. Two points later, Stosur buried a forehand return winner to close out a convincing 6-2, 6-3 triumph, the first Grand Slam title of her career.
“I’m still kind of speechless,” said Stosur, who, at 27, became the oldest U.S. Open titlist since Martina Navratilova in 1987. “I can’t actually believe I won this tournament. I guess to go out there and play the way I did is obviously just an unbelievable feeling, and you always hope and you want to be able to do that, but to actually do it, is unbelievable.”
Stosur said the time she’s spent over the last two years working with a sports psychologist has now paid off.
“[I] have certainly learned a lot about myself as a player and off the court as a person…It’s not always nice conversations that you have deal with and talk about, but at the end of the day it’s all for a reason. I think she’s been able to open my mind up to a lot of different things, and probably just make me realize certain things in myself. It’s just working it out…I’m sure there was times where I didn’t want to talk about anything and just forget about it and try and shove it under the carpet. But I guess I didn’t. Guess it’s all worth it.”
How did Stosur summon all that second-week energy? En route to the final, the Aussie had played longest match in U.S. Open history — a three-hour, 16-minute decision over Russian Nadia Petrova. Plus, she had survived a three-setter against another Russian, Maria Kirilenko, despite dropping the longest women’s tiebreak in Grand Slam history (32 points). In all, she had logged 11 hours, 28 minutes on court — the most of any woman. Meanwhile, Williams had been on court for only seven hours, 34 minutes. But the svelte Stosur, gifted with a triathlete’s body, looked as if she could run all night.
“She’s been very strong mentally,” said Stosur’s coach, David Taylor. “That’s probably the most pleasing part. The last words I said to her before she went on were, ‘You’re good enough to win this match.’ And she did.”
Taylor said Stosur’s loss to Francesca Schiavone in the 2010 Roland Garros final stung. But neither coach nor player ever doubted that she would get another chance at a Slam.
“Look who she beat to get to the Roland Garros final,” Taylor continued. “She beat Serena, she beat [Justine] Henin, maybe the greatest clay-court player of all time, and [Jelena] Jankovic. She deserved to be in the final. It wasn’t luck.”
Asked if, as a role model, she felt any responsibility to show more sportsmanship on the court, Williams said, “When you’re an athlete, whether you’re looking at a basketball player or football player or tennis players, these athletes, we train all our lives since I was three…We live for these moments. Everyone lives to be in the final of Wimbledon or the final at the U.S. Open. Whatever happens in that moment, you live for them and we breathe for them.”
“I definitely wanted to win today all because of 9/11,” she continued. “Ten years ago, I was actually at the same stage right before this all happened. It was a really deep moment for all of us. So, obviously, as the last American left I kind of wanted to do well, but it didn’t work out the way I planned.”