There have been countless stats thrown around in the run-up to tonight’s US Open women’s final but the one below caught my eye.
September 11, 1999: Serena Williams won her 1st major title @usopen.
June 16, 2000: Bianca Andreescu was born.
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) September 6, 2019
It really has been two decades since Serena Williams toppled Martina Hingis to claim major no.1 at just 17 years of age. After the match, President Bill Clinton congratulated her by phone. American Pie was in the cinema and Mambo No.5 was all you heard on the radio. It was that long ago…
Since that first major triumph in September 1999, a remarkable 22 more have found their way to the American’s trophy cabinet.
They sometimes came in bunches, like when she lifted five trophies in two seasons (2002-03) including four-in-a-row.
She repeated the ‘Serena Slam’ a dozen years later, before an inspired Roberta Vinci prevented her from a fifth consecutive major final and possible calendar grand slam.
In other times, due to injury and the odd distraction, majors didn’t come so easy.
The magnificent Justine Henin had some say in this as she stopped Williams in the quarter-finals of three consecutive grand slams in 2007. The diminutive Belgian, along with older sister Venus, provided the most resistance to Williams over the years.
The Floridian has commanding head-to-heads over the rest, be it Maria Sharapova, Amelie Mauresmo, Victoria Azarenka and on and on.
Williams hit 18 majors at the end of the 2014 season and it has been a fascinating stretch in the meantime. We’ve gone from the extraordinary dominance of 2015-17, when she made at least the semis of nine consecutive majors, to absence, pregnancy and the comeback trail.
The American returned to major action at Roland Garros 2018 and her results have been consistent. Victory in this week’s semi-final assured Williams of a fourth grand slam final in 14 months.
But strangely for Serena, those finals haven’t gone her way.
The spectre of Margaret Court, and that all-time record of 24 major singles titles, hovers over Williams and most of the media coverage. The 37-year-old got within one of the Australian legend when she beat Venus Down Under in the 2017 final.
Back then the question was: “When will Serena break Court’s record?”
In the time since we’ve seen Williams return to action post-pregnancy and thrice finish runner-up.
First, Angie Kerber was inspired in the 2018 Wimbledon final. Then we had last year’s debacle in Flushing Meadows when Naomi Osaka’s wonderful performance was the last thing spoken about.
Finally, we saw a resolute Simona Halep make every ball possible on Centre Court this summer as she beat Williams in straight sets.
If Williams loses to the uber-talented Bianca Andreescu tonight, the question may become: “Will Serena break Court’s record?”
It’s interesting to compare the motivation of Williams with the current big three of men’s tennis.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have each surpassed Pete Sampras’s 14 major titles and are creating their own history before us. Williams meanwhile has a target in mind. At the moment, it’s 24, surely to be followed by 25.
History isn’t the only pressure of course. There’s an expectation from her fans and the media, brave internet commenters, age, health and more. All of this tension seemed to affect Williams’ performances in those finals.
In each one, she struggled to find the outstanding level we know she has.
This evening, Williams will face a similar challenge to the one Martina Hingis dealt with all those years ago on Arthur Ashe. It’s the world’s best player against a fearless teenager in her first major final.
Will Bianca be this year’s Naomi? Or will the number ‘24’ soon follow Serena’s name in every biography?