Getting to Grand Slam finals has not been the hard part for Serena Williams since returning to tennis after having a baby.
It’s what comes next that’s been the problem.
Despite repeated injuries, despite a lack of proper preparation, Williams keeps putting herself in position to earn a 24th major championship, which would equal Margaret Court for the most in tennis history.
Williams gets her latest chance at the US Open on Saturday, when she will face 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu of Canada for the trophy.
This will be Williams’ fourth final in the past six majors. But she is 0-3 in those others, losing against Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon in July 2018, to Naomi Osaka at Flushing Meadows in September 2018 - who could forget that one? - and to Simona Halep this July.
“There’s so many different emotions in finals,” Williams said after her 6-3, 6-1 semifinal victory over No. 5 Elina Svitolina. “It just brings out so many highs and lows, nerves and expectations. It’s a lot.”
The difference this time, according to Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, is that she should feel better about her game now. Unlike for those past three finals, she is healthy, she is in good shape, she has been able to put in the right amount of work.
And therefore, he explained, it’ll be easier for her to deal with the emotions and pressure in this final than in those others.
“If you feel weak or not as strong as you wish you would, it’s more difficult to beat the pressure. When you don’t move well, you can’t be as confident as you should be because if your ‘A’ game doesn’t work, you don’t have any other option. And for me, that’s what happened,” he said on Friday. “It’s a totally different situation now because now she can move. If she needs to play the rally, she can play the rally. ... So there is no panic if she misses a bit more than usual. No problem.”
“It’s difficult for us to realize because she was in three finals, so you feel she’s ready. But she was in the three finals because she’s the best competitor of all time,” he said, “not because she was ready.”
The match against Osaka quickly devolved after Williams argued with chair umpire Carlos Ramos about a warning over receiving signals from Mouratoglou. Eventually, as things escalated, Williams was docked a point for breaking her racket, then a game for calling Ramos a “liar” and a “thief.”
“Obviously there’s a lot of things that I’ve learned in the past,” she said, “but I just have to go out there (and), above all, most of all, just stay relaxed.”
It might help that she got a look, if a brief one, at Andreescu just last month in the final of a tuneup event in Toronto, in front of the youngster’s home fans. Williams was trailing 3-1 when she retired from the match, citing back spasms. That might have helped Andreescu, too, of course.
Andreescu has been a revelation this season, going 33-4, including 7-0 against top-10 opponents, and hasn’t lost a completed match since March 1. She was sidelined by injuries for part of that time, particularly to her right shoulder.
She has a varied style, an in-your-face attitude - her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, called her a “street fighter” - and an ability to come through in the clutch, going 13-3 in three-setters this year.
Just one year ago, Andreescu was losing in qualifying in New York. Now she is the first woman since Williams’ older sister, Venus, in 1997 to get all the way to the final in her US Open main-draw debut.
This is only the fourth major tournament of her career.
“I definitely was not surprised,” No. 15 Belinda Bencic said after her 7-6 (3), 7-5 semifinal loss to Andreescu. “I don’t think anyone should be.”
What about Andreescu herself? Is she shocked by this sudden success?
Well, yes and no.
On one hand, this is all a bit dizzying for someone never before even past the second round at a Slam, which is why she kept asking, “Is this real life?” after her quarterfinal win. On the other, she says she’s been visualizing this since she was 16 and wrote herself a fake check with what a US Open champion earns - and has updated the figure as the real top prize has climbed to $3.85 million (about $5 million in today’s Canadian dollars).
That the final comes against Williams makes it all the more special.
“I remember always telling my team I would have always wanted to play her right before she retires,” said Andreescu, who was born the year after Williams won her first Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows at age 17. “I’m really looking forward to it.”