*Flushing, New York – Last year this time all eyes were on Serena Williams as she embarked upon her quest to win her first Calendar Slam and her 22nd Grand Slams overall, both feats only having been accomplished by tennis legend Steffi Graf. So, to that point, each morning Serena Williams laced up her signature Nikes, she was prepping to run down the German open era record holder and overtake her in the history books.
Mission … not accomplished, however; at least not then.
Usually victorious once she reaches the business end of a tournament, the transcendent Compton, California native slowly turned to stone the more she affixed her gaze upon and got closer to matching those history markers at last year’s US Open. Her otherwise dominant game became more and more unrecognizable – defensive and unstable – as the cement began to set. Although the way had been paved due to her most formidable competition in the tournament being dumped out early, by the time she reached the semis – facing an opponent she would otherwise annihilate on even a less than best day, she was a mere shadow of her steely self. She lost her way against Italian, Roberta Vinci, and lost the match. It was a massive upset that was felt ‘round the grounds – and the world – and since it was something Serena Williams felt she needed to put the ultimate cap on her otherwise storied career, her devastation led to an abrupt halt to her 2015 season.
But, as time went on and the 2016 season got started, Serena regrouped and – though the reset button was pressed regarding the Calendar Slam pursuit – she realized that grabbing Slam no. 22 was still well within reach. The first tournament of the season, the Australian open, had historically been kind to her and since she had won it 6 times already she could find some pretty immediate redemption in winning so soon after the US Open debacle. She could also make a small dent in pursuing the Calendar Slam for 2016, albeit too soon to focus on that particular possibility.
But “almost” got in the way … and as singer Brandy taught us, that doesn’t count.
Serena Williams fought her way to the AO final, but she met with German backboard, Angelique Kerber, who was being advised by the very legend she was trying to match, Graf. Kerber spoke with Graf before the Australian Open tournament and whatever she said to her was enough to help her get the job done. She took Serena down … in a final of a Grand Slam … a rarity. She almost reached twenty-two yet again, but … yeah, what Brandy said. If there were any consolation, however, Serena didn’t seem as phased about the loss that go ‘round, indicating that the stress had been released and she could at least return to her game, which had historically prevailed. And it did beyond that point.
Serena Williams went on to win Wimbledon, reaching her goal of tying Graf at 22 Slams, and made the final of the French Open, where she was taken down by an inspired Spaniard by the name of Garbine Muguruza (she had beaten her at the French before). Notable, but no biggie, as she was already at least even with Graf.
As for Kerber, the win – her first Grand Slam win – catapulted her in the rankings and with the subsequent confident match play, she now finds herself holding the world no. 2 ranking, with the chance of unseating Serena Williams as world no. 1 here at the 2016 US Open. Serena has to at least make the semis and, best case, win it just to hang on to and best her current points, but Kerber has to do nothing but hope she doesn’t the way the points system works. In essence, Serena has to do what she did last year and go further than Kerber or she’ll lose the no. 1 ranking. She’s already matched Graf, but to exceed her accomplishments, she needs to win.
Serena’s thoughts on the subject of retaining world no. 1: “I don’t answer those questions.” Ok, moving on…
Serena’s round one match was Tuesday night on Ashe … and she was dominant. She played against former US Open semifinalist, Russian Ekaterina Makarova, which on paper was a “tough match.” Not so, however. After her sister Venus Williams finished warming the court, she walked the unnerved Russian down, putting on a serving clinic – logging 12 aces, and averaging 108 mph. Her ground strokes were solid and her movement was gazelle-like. If she continues on in that manner, #23 and retaining world no. 1(to become the record holder for the longest stint holding the top spot) are both in the bag.
Time will tell.
And speaking of Venus Williams, she pulled out her 77th US Open match win (the most on record) in round one against Ukrainian Kateryna Kozlova, who remembers watching her play when she was just five years old.
Venus, the oldest women in action this year, came out of the blocks on fire and had the first and half of the second set under control … until her younger opponent shook her nerves and gave the veteran a tooth-and-nail fight. At 6-2, 4-0 the Ukrainian started getting every ball back, pulling out deft volleys and smacking line-skimming winners to unsettle the world no. 6. The breaks of serve were plentiful and the frustration was palpable, but Venus’ experience shined through and she hung in there, getting the decisive break in the 3rd to close the match, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4. The US crowd has a checkered past when it comes to supporting the Williams sisters, no matter who they were playing or where they were from, but inside Ashe on this second day of round one, all fans were on deck in support of the 35-year-old. She noticed it, the commentators noticed it and I noticed it. It was likely the support that got her over the hump, because she was definitely on the rails.
The first round is never easy,” she said. “You’re trying to find a rhythm, get used to the court, you know, play an opponent I never played before.”
“But it was great to be challenged and to be pushed because I had to get in those situations that you know you’re going to face in the tournament early on. So, that felt good to come through.”
Madison Keys, the third-ranked American behind Venus and Serena, played her first round match on opening night, after legendary singer Phil Collins blessed opening night and the new stadium roof by singing his hit, “In The Air Tonight” and “Easy Lover” with Hamilton star, Leslie Odom Jr. (he performed the National Anthem). She played compatriot Alison Riske and dropped the first set before steadying herself and running away with the match in the third. It was Riske’s fifth US Open, so her experience gave her at least a look against the big serving Keys, but that “look” proved to not be enough once Keys cleared her mind and got all the gears of her powerful serve and ground game clicking in sync.
“Being down a set and a break first round of the US Open is never a comfortable feeling,” she said. I knew if I let that panic set in then it would just go downhill, so it was a conscious effort to stay mellow and be clear thinking.”
The final scoreline was 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2, keeping Keys in contention to win her first slam … and some are predicting that she just may pull it off at this US Open given her recent Slam results.
Francis Tiafoe and Taylor Townsend, two young African American professional tennis upstarts (with juniors success) both showed why they’re on the “ones to watch” list.
Tiafoe, an 18-year-old signed to Jay-Z’s RocNation, hails from Maryland and found his way up through the dark and dreary guts of junior tennisdom to earn a spot in the main draw of the US Open. He was up against former American player, John Isner, in first round play and had the monstrous-serving world no. 21 on the ropes at two sets to love. Isner found his game, however, and took the next three sets – and the match, but it required very inspired play and a final set tiebreaker to make it happen. Tiafoe went down 3-6, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2, 7-6(3), fighting all the way. It was a heart breaking loss for the youngster, because he actually served for the match, but Isner played the return game of his life and shut him out:
“Yeah, serving for it I thought I definitely had it. I definitely thought the match was over, but he played a good return game. Didn’t make that many first serves that game. Probably should’ve played a higher percentage, but it’s tough … toughest loss of my career thus far.”
He lost, but he earned respect from the fans and Isner alike in his quest to take his first top 20 scalp.
Townsend played a former world no.1, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, and took her to three close sets. Wozniacki has had a rough several months on tour, but her game is nothing to sneeze at when it’s on. She’s likely the best counterpuncher on tour, running neck in neck with world no. 2, Angelique Kerber. Taylor took the first set off the Dane, dropped the second and fought hard in the third, but she faltered in those last critical moments. It was poor shot selection – three untimely drop shot attempts in particular – that really lost her the match, but as she matures as a regular main draw player, she’ll likely figure out what works and when and become a force on the WTA tour.
“This is one of the wins that — or losses that really stings. I had so many chances,” she said. “Overall, I just have to take the positive from it. This is definitely not satisfying for me. … That’s how I feel. Just to get better because I know that I’m so close.”
Another American teen, Michael Mmoh, went down pretty decisively to veteran Jeremy Chardy of France, 6-4,6,4, 6-1. He’s the reigning USTA juniors champion, who earned a spot in the main draw, and clearly has more work to do to play consistently at the pro level, but his form is on point. He has a powerful serve and a strong forehand, but he has to weave it all together with the emotional and psychological aspects of the game to compete with the ATP best of the best. Put an asterisks by his name.
American, Donald Young, won his first round match against Jan-Lennard Stuff, 6-3, 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 on Tuesday. Young typically performs better at the US Open than other Slams, likely buoyed by the home-crowd support, so there’s a chance he’ll survive for a spell this year. We’ll keep an eye out for his results this fortnight, given he’s in the same quarter as top dogs, Andy Murray (has one win against him) and Kei Nishikori, which could end all bets.
* Sloane Stephens, formerly known as Serena Williams’ heir apparent, pulled out due to a foot injury.