Serena Williams struggles, ever closer to the finish line
By Christopher Clarey
The Serena Williams farewell tour continues to seem like a fine idea that has come too late in the game.
Since Williams’ announcement in Vogue last week that she would soon retire from the sport that she once ruled, she has played two matches and lost both in straight sets.
Her last hurrahs have so far been sotto voce: grand occasions without matching content. And as Emma Raducanu, last year’s surprise U.S. Open champion, made frightfully quick work of Williams with a victory, 6-4, 6-0, on Tuesday night, the sold-out center court at the Western and Southern Open in Mason, Ohio was often as quiet as a practice court as the nearly 12,000 fans on hand rarely had the chance to cheer the icon they had come to honor.
For those who remember Williams at her peak, it was painful to watch this first-round defeat as she piled up unforced errors and missed returns early and then, after a brief surge, faded badly down the stretch with more of the same.
Irresistible on serve in her prime, she lost her opening service game at love and also lost her last three service games, unable to control her shots or her destiny, particularly when the quick and agile Raducanu got her on the run, exposing Williams’ now-limited movement.
Williams’ second serve has been a problem in recent years, and it was an even bigger problem Tuesday. She won just two of 16 points on her second delivery: a paltry 12.5%. And although Williams had long feasted on second serves like Raducanu’s, the 19-year-old British star won 75% of the points on her second serve as Williams struggled to find her timing and sometimes her footing.
It was a measure of Williams’ disarray and disappointment that, after this 65-minute rout was complete, she politely shook hands with Raducanu and quickly exited the court with a wave to the crowd, declining an on-court interview with Kondo Simfukwe that would have allowed her to address the public directly in her final match at the tournament.
Last week in Toronto, when Williams lost to Belinda Bencic in the second round of the National Bank Open, there was considerably more fanfare: Williams said a formal farewell to Canada, shed a few tears and accepted an armful of parting gifts, including Maple Leafs and Raptors jerseys with her name and the No. 22 on them.
But there would be no Bengals gear Tuesday outside Cincinnati, even though the Western and Southern Open tournament staff were prepared to mark the moment with much more pomp and circumstance if Williams had been open to the idea.
Instead, it was left to Raducanu, who had just faced Williams for the first and likely only time, to speak to the moment and perform one of the pirouettes that Williams long deployed in victory.
“Well, I think we all need to just honor Serena and her amazing career,” Raducanu said. “I’m so grateful for the experience to be able to play her and for our careers to cross over. Everything she has achieved is so inspirational, and yeah, it was a true honor to share this court with her.”
Raducanu was not yet born when Williams won her first Grand Slam singles title at age 17 at the 1999 U.S. Open, but like so many of her generation, Raducanu grew up with Williams dominating the landscape.
“When you guys were cheering for her, I was like — you know what? — all for it,” Raducanu said to the crowd.
Raducanu’s breakthrough victory in New York last year was much more of a shock than Williams’ 1999 triumph. Raducanu was an unseeded qualifier and is the only qualifier to win a Grand Slam singles title. She has struggled to follow up on that bravura performance, failing to reach a final in any other tour event. But her poise, precision, flowing footwork and superbly sliced serves Tuesday were a flashback to last September at Flushing Meadows, even if she felt much more shaky than she looked.
“To be honest, I was nervous from the first point to the last point,” Raducanu said. “I know what a champion she is. She can come back from any situation. I just had to stay focused. I’m just so pleased I managed to keep my composure.”
Williams’ struggles in the twilight are certainly understandable. She will turn 41 next month and has been a professional since age 14. The years, even with a limited schedule and phenomenal talent, take their toll. Williams, who missed a year of action after a hamstring tear at Wimbledon in 2021, has played only four singles matches in the past 14 months, and she took to the court to face Raducanu with a long strip of tape running down the outside of her left thigh, likely to provide support for her left knee.
This much-anticipated match between the greatest women’s player of this era and one of the game’s brightest young talents was originally scheduled for Monday night but was delayed a day at Williams’ request in order to give her, according to people informed of the situation but not authorized to speak about it, more time to recover from knee pain.
It was a newsy day in women’s tennis Tuesday: Naomi Osaka, once the world No. 1, continued to struggle, losing in the first round by 6-4, 7-5 to Zhang Shuai of China. Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old American who reached the French Open final earlier this year, rolled an ankle late in the first set of her opening-round match with Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic and retired, trailing 5-7, 0-1.
But the main event was clearly Williams vs. Raducanu, and Williams took the court after warming up in front of a large and supportive crowd earlier in the day on Court 16, with fans peering down from nearby show courts for a chance to catch a glimpse of Williams in person, perhaps for the last time. Some of them already had watched Williams’ older sister Venus lose, 7-5, 6-1, on center court to No. 14 seed Karolina Pliskova in their first-round match.
It was another poignant day for the Williams sisters and another short stay at a tournament where they used to settle in for longer. On Wednesday, the 10th-seeded Raducanu, not the unseeded Serena Williams, was to face former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the second round.
Serena Williams will presumably return to the practice court and physical therapy to try to get sharper and healthier before playing in New York, even if it now seems a long shot that she will be able to find enough form to make a run at the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 29 and is likely to be the last of her hurrahs.