We’ve been to this Arthur Ashe Stadium rodeo before.
A New York happening – big city, big arena, high gloss, big hype. And here we were again, just after Labor Day, with tennis’ aging diva, who’d be facing a Euro rival in the semis she should be able to handle with some ease. After all, Karolina Pliskova was camping outside the top 10. Okay, she was No. 11, but she has long been burdened by a reputation for tightening at Slams. Last year in the US Open she only won a paltry three games.
In contrast, Serena has won 22 Slams and was en route to winning her second Slam of the season – always a marker of a good year for Williams. With a victory, the proud warrior could still remain atop the WTA rankings, a lofty perch she’s held since February, 2013. Beyond this, John McEnroe expressed the hopes of many, proclaiming, “Once and for all we are going to say that Serena is the greatest female tennis player ever.”
Unlike last year’s diminutive Serena slayer, Italian Roberta Vinci, Pliskova is hardly a stylish artist who slices and dices with an almost poetic creativity. Rather, Pliskova is a prototypical eponymous blaster: tall, 6’1″, strong (she leads the WTA in aces) with fierce groundies that penetrate and punish, the Czech comes from a land with a storied tennis tradition of classic strokes. She’s thin, long-legged and an unblinking pounder. And yes, like Serena, she has a sister in the WTA.
Speaking of Venus, since Pliskova dropped the first set to the elder Williams in the fourth round, she’s absolutely been on fire. She came back to dismiss Venus in three sets and then demolished Ana Konjuh in under an hour. For her part, Serena had been doing just fine. She hadn’t lost a set going into the quarters, but there she encountered the feisty No. 6 seed, Simona Halep, in what turned out to be an over two-hour marathon that forced her to run breathlessly corner to corner time and again.
Still, the vast crowd presumed that Serena, who’s 34-7 in her Arthur Ashe night matches, would have enough in the tank to prevail.
But she didn’t.
Long before the venture capitalists from Darien or the stock brokers from Brooklyn Heights got to their seats, Pliskova blasted deep backhands that flustered Serena. The Czech’s serve – both fast and well-placed – was on fire, as she hit nine of nine first serves and collected seven straight points. Repeatedly she had Serena on her heels. She made her seem as sluggish as the muggy night. TMS (The Mighty Serena) looked ordinary, as Pliskova landed one painful punch after another. Most important, Karolina scored a quick break to go up 2-1.
As Olympians, Hollywood’s finest and sage commentators looked on in disbelief, Serena failed to come to net and didn’t try any drop shots. Her acceleration was modest and her movements timid.
She’d come off her 2:14 marathon against Simona Halep just 22 and a half hours ago, and once again, fans had to sit through one of her passive starts. In just 26 minutes, she’d dropped the first set 6-2. What a shock!
But if nothing else, the world knows Serena is a fierce battler. A Nike ad campaign has been calling her the world’s best athlete. Tennis sages say she’s mentally the toughest in the game, and, incredibly, she has a winning record even after losing the first set.
So, not surprisingly, in the second set, Serena promptly stopped her free fall. She cut down on her errors. Her served improved. She seemed less sluggish. Still Pliskova unleashed a running forehand to score a break to go up 3-2. But Serena promptly broke back at love to even the set, which eventually went to a tiebreak.
All the while it was clear: Serena was not her usual athletic self. Yes, she scored some stunning winners that sparked the crowd. More often, she grasped her left leg. She limped slightly, and missed the easiest of shots – gasp! Forehands were dumped into the net. Groundies were shanked like a junior varsity wannabe. And she ended her lofty quest for her 23rd Slam with a humbling error. Her 186-week reign as Queen of the WTA crashed as if she were a lowly peasant. She double-faulted. For the second year in a row the mighty star fell in the US Open semis.
Later Williams admitted that her injury distracted her from her shots and she made errors she shouldn’t have. But, showing superb sportsmanship, she refused to blame her defeat on her malady.
Not so her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who was outspoken: “I don’t remember ever seeing her moving so slow, ever, maybe just a few years ago when she tore the ligament on her ankle.” He said that Serena injured her left knee yesterday at the end of the Halep quarterfinal. Today in practice, she couldn’t move well, and she’d had treatment all day. He asked, “How can you win a match if you can’t move?” adding, “Two more hours? Two more weeks, maybe, not two more hours. Makes no difference.”
For her part, Pliskova said she didn’t notice whether Serena was hurting. More than this, she played with superb technical skill – such beautiful flat groundies off both wings – and an unflinching mental toughness as 23,000 Americans rooted against her. She told ESPN, “America hates me…but I’m excited.”
And why not, her convincing 6-2, 7-6(5) victory meant she continued her stunning run of wins over top 10 players. And she joined Martina Hingis, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters as the only players to have beaten both Williams sisters in a Slam tournament. Just over two weeks ago she had beaten Angie Kerber in the Cincy final to prevent the German from becoming No. 1. Now she had bumped Serena off the top spot.
More than this, the twenty-four-year-old said all her recent wins “gave me a lot of confidence and that’s what tennis is all about…I have a chance to beat anyone in the tournament. I was ready for anything.”
Now tennis must be ready to answer a whole new bevy of questions.
Would Williams have won if she hadn’t been hurt? Will Serena ever return to the No. 1 slot, and is age catching up with the 34-year-old?
Is the WTA in a whole new era? If Pliskova again beats Kerber (who knocked off Caroline Wozniacki in the other semi tonight), the four different majors this year will have given us four different champions.