An underdog with the oddsmakers against the No. 2 seed, Anett Kontaveit, on Wednesday, Serena Williams will be back on familiar ground as the favorite against the unseeded Ajla Tomljanovic on Friday.
The word is out, expedited by the roars in Arthur Ashe Stadium: Williams has worked her way with great speed back into form and into the third round of her final U.S. Open.
It is remarkable but not necessarily astonishing, even a few weeks from her turning 41.
“We can all ride a bike at an older age, and once the jitters are gone, you can even ride a bike without holding the handlebars,” said Sven Groeneveld, the leading coach who works with Bianca Andreescu and long coached Maria Sharapova.
“It’s like walking for Serena,” Groeneveld said. “She has played tennis 90 percent of her life.”
Williams has no shortage of positive memories to draw on from her younger years of pulling out of tailspins in a hurry.
In 2007, she came into the Australian Open unseeded and ranked 81st, having played just five tournaments in the previous year and losing early in her lone warm-up event.
But she soon locked in, defeating six seeded players, including the top-ranked Sharapova in the final.
In 2012, Williams was beaten in the first round of the French Open by Virginie Razzano, a Frenchwoman ranked 111th. It was Williams’s earliest defeat to date in a major tournament, and it left her reeling and unusually open to change.
She brought on a new coaching consultant, Patrick Mouratoglou, and though she played no tuneup events before arriving at Wimbledon, she quickly worked her way into devastating form. She won the title and then played what is widely considered the best tennis of her career to win the Olympic gold medal in singles and also in doubles with her sister Venus at the London Games on the same grass courts of the All England Club.
That was, beyond doubt, a no-handlebars moment, but she is coming from even further back this time: playing no competitive tennis for nearly a year, arriving at the U.S. Open having won just one of four singles matches this season and ranked, strange but true, No. 605.
“I just think because Serena is Serena and is a great athlete, that the more practice and the more practice matches she gets, she can play her way into an event,” said Kathy Rinaldi, the United States King Cup captain. “You’ve seen her do it in the past, and if you watched the match against Kontaveit, her movement to me got better and better by the third set, and I just think a great athlete can do that.”
Serena Williams at the U.S. Open
The U.S. Open could be the tennis star’s last professional tournament after a long career of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.
- A Magical Run: As her successes on the field prove, Serena Williams did not come to New York to receive a ceremonial send-off, but to put her best on the line against the world’s finest players.
- In the Player’s Box: Fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium have been catching glimpses of her family and entourage. Here is a look at who has been in attendance to support her.
- Her Fans: We asked readers to share their memories of watching Williams play and the emotions that she stirred. There was no shortage of submissions.
- Sisterhood on the Field: Since Williams and her sister Venus burst onto the tennis scene in the 1990s, their legacies have been tied to one another.
Some fitness coaches for other players were still shaking their heads on Thursday at their mind’s-eye images of Williams’s struggling to cover court at the National Bank Open in Toronto and the Western and Southern Open in Mason, Ohio: tournaments in which she lost last month in early rounds.
“The change in a month is incredible,” said Maciej Ryszczuk, the fitness coach of the world No. 1, Iga Swiatek.
But Williams said she felt her level in practice was often quite high as she returned to the tour, but that this was not carrying over into matches. The exception was the Western and Southern Open, where she was dealing with what several people had said was a flare-up of knee tendinitis: something that neither she nor her staff has confirmed.
But Eric Hechtman, Williams’s new coach, said the platform for the success so far in New York was in place.
“The shotmaking was there, and the serve was there,” he said in an interview after her victory over Kontaveit. “She was actually moving well in practice, so in New York, we added in some more side-to-side running drills, and I think that’s helped.”
So have the sellout crowds of nearly 24,000 in Ashe Stadium that are entirely in Williams’s corner.
“That stadium is so big, and once you pack it in like that with a bunch of fired-up people, it’s a game changer,” Hechtman said. “It takes a little bit of time to get some rhythm, but it’s starting to come together. It was a great win against Kontaveit, but it’s still just the second round. None of us are getting carried away.”
A loss against Tomljanovic
would actually bring Williams full circle. She also lost in the third round in her first U.S. Open singles appearance in 1998 and has never failed to go farther in her 19 appearances since then: winning six titles.
But the expectations are different this year. Given her recent level of play, the third round feels like an achievement. But the challenge as Williams goes deeper in the tournament will be to manage the load that comes with stacking up singles matches and doubles matches. She played doubles with her sister Venus at a tournament for the first time in more than four years, losing in the first round Thursday to Lucie Hradecka and Linda Noskova of the Czech Republic, 7-6 (5), 6-4.
Unlike regular tour events, the Grand Slam tournaments allow a day of rest for women’s singles players between each round of singles, with occasional exceptions. Unlike the men, who play best-of-five-set matches, the women play best-of-three-set matches.
But playing doubles on what would normally be a recovery day could still create a greater risk for the 40-year-old Williams. The last time she and Venus played doubles in a major — at the 2018 French Open — Williams withdrew from singles before the fourth round with a pectoral injury aggravated during a doubles match.
Mouratoglou, who had counseled against playing both events because Williams was returning from a long layoff, was displeased, and Williams had not played singles and doubles with her sister at a major again until now.
But in what is most likely Williams’s final tournament, this sounds like a heart-over-head decision.
“I feel like it’s been very important for her to be a part of this,” Williams had said of Venus. “She’s my rock. I’m super excited to play with her and just do that again. It’s been a long time.”
Hechtman, who also coaches Venus Williams, said he fully supported the decision. “I think it’s great she’s playing doubles,” he said of Serena. “It’s not just the doubles, it’s the fact you get the reps on serves and return and play points and play with the crowd again.”
Hechtman had not pushed for Serena to play doubles in her warm-up events.
“This is a different situation,” he said. “It’s her last tournament. It’s a Grand Slam and you have the day off in between singles matches, and normally you practice on that day, so instead you are playing doubles. I talked to her a little bit about it in Cincy, and it was like, ‘You know what? This totally makes sense.’”
What also made sense to Hechtman was the decision to play tournaments in singles heading into the U.S. Open, which Williams did not do before Wimbledon, where she lost in the first round to Harmony Tan, an unseeded Frenchwoman.
“I personally thought we were very ready for Wimbledon,” he said. “The only thing we didn’t have was those matches. Even if she was a little banged-up in Cincy, I think those tournaments were crucial to getting to the level she’s hit here. You can’t say definitively they made the difference, but I would say they were very important.”
Scouting and preparation have also been important in New York. She had not faced Danka Kovinic, her first-round opponent, or Kontaveit and has not played Tomljanovic either. Hechtman said he and Williams had been getting input on opponents from the United States Tennis Association’s analytics team, working closely with Rinaldi and David Ramos, a director for performance analytics.
“It helps us see clearly how Serena’s strengths match up against opponents’ weaknesses, and we go from there,” Hechtman said.
Hechtman said he also welcomed the arrival of Rennae Stubbs, an ESPN analyst, coach and former No. 1 doubles player, who has been providing counsel in New York.
“They’ve been friends for a long time, and the more positive people — this is a very emotional state — the better it is,” he said. “I’m all for it. Look, I’m here to win so anything that’s going to help us get over that mountaintop.”