In 2017 Serena won the Aussie Open to claim her 23rd Slam. Naturally it was just a matter of time before the greatest player of all time would equal the most coveted record in women’s tennis – Margaret Court’s 24 Slams. Piece of cake.
Then we learned she’d done something that no man could do. She’d won a major while pregnant. Months later she gave birth, and, amazingly, soon was back to the tour. She’s played seven Slams since, and reached four finals, but as yet has not won that coveted 24th.
Serena transcends tennis. She has millions of fans who hoped this year’s Aussie Open would be the breakthrough they were waiting for. Serena had a fabulous off-season filled with hard work and fun. She was fit, faster and more focused. She swept to victory in Auckland, dropping just one set, and raced into the third round in Melbourne. And there she’d have a breezy match. She’d face the little-known, No. 29 ranked Wang Qiang, whom she’d beaten at the US Open 6-1, 6-0 in 45 minutes. Wang had won just 15 points.
But there were problems. Four of them.
- The trap: in all of sports, in all of life, it’s just so easy to overlook foes you’ve dismissed before with ease. In New York, Williams had destroyed Wang. And Serena knew well that in the next two rounds here she could have incredible foes – her dear friend Wozniacki and, after that, maybe Osaka or Gauff. Even the greatest of players look ahead, or can take matters for granted.
- History can be an athlete’s biggest foe. Williams faltered before equaling the American record for most Slams – 18. Serena confided that she’d felt the pressure of equaling Court’s mark, but now was over it. She’s a good actress.
- Resumes matter – but then again maybe not. For years Serena had intimidated foes by just being Serena. Many withered. She’s a force – but less so these days: she’s ranked No. 8. Ten years younger than Serena, China’s No. 1 blinked – but only briefly. And, don’t forget, players lift their game against the greats – they’re targets.
- The fiercest foe in sports is time. Serena is 38. That matters. She doesn’t play the kind of full schedule that toughens you. Today she couldn’t bring her magic, as she fell 4-6, 7-6, 5-7 to the No. 27 seed.
Wang Qiang had two great losses last summer. In July, her former coach, Peter McNamara, lost his battle with cancer. In August, her match against Serena was hardly a battle – the shortest match of the Open. In her long off-season, she hit the gym, got more powerful and had three-hour tennis workouts daily. Her coach told her, “I believe in you 200%. You have to believe in yourself 100%.”
Her new-found belief showed today. China’s No. 1 came out hitting. She absorbed Serena’s pace. She returned well. She prevailed in long rallies. She’d been slapped in the face by Williams. Now she was slapping groundies. Playing to win, she put Serena on the run. Williams had no rhythm and often was flat-footed and impatient. She wasn’t eager or able to craft points. She had almost three times as many unforced errors as her foe.
Twice in the first set, Serena had break points – but she couldn’t convert. Wang – who did reach the US Open quarterfinals and has wins over Venus and Ash Barty – broke Serena and collected the first set.
But we’ve seen this movie before. And today’s match seemed to follow the script we know well. Again in the second set Serena fell behind. Yes, we saw some stunning winners and her famous get-out-of-jail shots. No one has power like she does. She prevailed in a critical 24-stroke point to come back to even the match at five-all.
Wang was confused, but knew she had to stay calm and weather the Serena storm. Promptly Williams romped. Never mind that she was playing her first tie-break in a year and a half. She won it 7-2. Now, as usual, she’d put the pedal to the metal and impose her Serenian will. Wang would crack, allowing Williams to go on to play epic matches en route to writing some serious history.
Wrong. Wang hit deep, and forced Serena to the corners. Afterward Serena said, “I didn’t serve well. I can’t do that again. It’s not professional, it’s not cool. It was on my racket.”
Yes, Williams’ play was patchy, but it was the 28-year-old Chinese star who won this match. Wang could have wilted. Instead she dictated. She could have collapsed after faltering on two match points. But she stepped up. Serena dumped a simple backhand into the net, allowing Qiang to score a stunning reversal.
In New York, Wang lost in 45 minutes. Today she subdued the mightiest force in the women’s game in 2:45. Her win came just a day before the Chinese New Year.
Now tennis wonders whether, in this new year, Serena can finally do it. Will she be able to equal Court’s mark and win a Slam in four straight decades? Or have time, a fearsome women’s field and life circumstances caught up with the icon? Does she want it just too much?
Serena says she’ll be practicing tomorrow. The day after that, Wang, the third highest-ranking Asian player, will be facing Africa’s No. 1 player, Tunisian Ons Jabeur who beat Wozniacki today. That’s wonderful – just not for Ms. Serena and her millions of fans, who know the clock is ticking, and history is still waiting to be written.