Serena Williams returned to the cradle of her legend hoping to discover seventh heaven. Unfortunately for the American, however, Flushing Meadows, the venue of her emergence in 1999 is turning into her Waterloo. Her 2-6, 6-7 (5) semi-final defeat to Karolina Pliskova was far from the seismic event last year, when a determined Roberta Vinci derailed her historic bid for a calendar slam.
Serena will be 35-years-old in two weeks, racing against time and a new generation of tennis stars to emulate Margaret Court on the Grand Slam count. Victory at Wimbledon earlier this year gave the legendary American permanence in the tennis pantheon as she tied Steffi Graf on 22 Grand Slam titles.
One major title, two finals and a semi-final might still be enough to define a career for ordinary mortals. Serena though is an immortal tennis player, who will go into the off-season not happy about her returns this year. A suspect shoulder and the dodgy knee discussed in the aftermath of her latest loss underline the problems faced by the ageing legend.
Agelique Kerber, the lady usurping the number one ranking from Serena on Monday has been a consistent challenger. The German inflicted a first ever three set defeat on Serena, in winning the Australian Open. Serena was 8-0 in three set Grand Slam finals before this year.
Garbine Muguruza, the Spaniard who gained prominence with an early round defeat of Serena in the 2014 French Open also took it up a level. Muguruza also won her maiden Grand Slam title, just as Kerber did, at the expense of Serena.
To her credit, Serena put one back on the young brigade with a convincing victory against Kerber at Wimbledon. Pliskova, the 24-year-old Czech, underlined a growing belief on the WTA Tour that Serena can be beaten.
Pliskova showed no remorse in dismissing the great American with a commanding performance in the first set. Serena tried her best to push the Czech into nervous territory, but despite blowing a 3-0 lead, Pliskova remained composed on her way to victory.
The fact that Pliskova refused to blink is of significance, considering that she became only the fourth woman to defeat both Williams sisters in the same tournament. She represents a new generation of players that doesn't feel burdened by the reputation of the woman across the net.
Some of Serena's contemporaries have been guilty of losing matches even before they entered the arena. Her lopsided dominance of Clijsters (7-2) and 18 consecuitve victories over Maria Sharapova explain the fear she evoked among the women of her time.
The current generation does not carry that burden, approaching matches against her as trophy hunters would a big game hunt. Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep will look to assert themselves to consolidate their presence inside the top five of the WTA rankings.
Madison Keys, the youngest member of the top ten, is making rapid strides. At 21, she might also have settled into her physical frame. She will be a major contender next season. Daria Kasatkina and Belinda Bencic are only 19, but they are firmly entrenched in the top 30. It will not be long before they start tapping on the heels of the women ahead. Croatian Ana Konjuh might only be ranked 92nd, but her defeat of Agnieszka Radwanska shows she might be ready to brew a storm.
As age catches up with Serena, she will find that recovery takes longer and instincts slow down. So far she has largely remained unaffected, courtesy a monstrous serve that sends shivers down the spines of her fellow professionals.
Any inconsistency with her serve will start hurting Serena, as her competitors start matching her shot for shot from the baseline. The fact that Serena ended the semi-final against Pliskova with a double fault is a grim reminder of the changing realities for the great American.
Frequent niggles and injuries are also beginning to cause concern within the Serena camp. Patrick Mouratoglou sought to deflect any criticism of Serena's defeat on Thursday to an injured knee. But both coach and player will need to answer a constant barrage of questions from Serena's aching body.
It's incredible as it is that Serena won over ten Grand Slam titles in two successive decades. She has overcome personal trauma, boredom and injury in a career spanning nearly two decades.
In a sport where a decade is a lifetime, Serena has given longevity a new dimension, winning nine major titles since turning 30. That is an enormous achievement in a sport that places reliance on speed and agility.
But the clock does not stop ticking for anyone, not even Serena Williams. A second straight semifinal defeat to an underdog, at a tournament that she has practically owned is a harbinger of the things to come. Serena may yet win the two titles needed to equal Court’s haul of 24 titles, but her days of dominance seem to be over.
First Published On : Sep 9, 2016 17:02 IST