The parking lots are full, but there’s only a sparse crowd this afternoon in Center Court of the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason, Ohio, when the chair umpire of this Cincinnati Open semifinal calls time. Serena Williams, wearing a violet sleeveless top and black miniskirt, with a bright yellow headband over her flowing, highlighted hair, moseys to the right baseline, settles atop it, and begins to sway back and forth awaiting the first serve of the match.
The tournament is one of the last hard-court warm-ups for the upcoming U.S. Open, the latter of which Williams is the back-to-back defending champ. Like many of her compatriots, she’s in the Cincinnati suburb prepping for the final Grand Slam of the season. In what has increasingly become the norm through the years no matter the event, however, Williams is the only American singles player, male or female, to advance beyond the round of 16.
The decline of the sport in the United States, or at least favorable results for its top competitors especially at the Slams, has been well documented over the last decade, and, with no definitive superstars emerging in that time among its many prospects, optimism about the future is also waning.
“It goes in cycles,” American icon and former No. 1 Pete Sampras told GQ a few years back, “just like it did with Sweden in the ’80s, or me and Andre [Agassi] and Jim [Courier] in the ’90s, or even Spain at present. It’s just testament to how international the game is now that we’re not dominating anymore.”
“In other countries the sport has become more of a focal point than it was,” added fellow American legend John McEnroe, “particularly since it became an Olympic sport [in 1988]. And other countries have seen what tennis can bring to the table: more recognition to the country, making people more aware of a small place. The fact that many countries have put more money into their development of the sport, that’s complicated things for us.”
Other authorities on the subject note that in the U.S., we simply do not place our best athletes in the sport, or at an early enough age to make them potential future Grand Slam winners. The current crop of men have yet to really make a name for themselves, with 29-year-old John Isner, the world No. 15, as the only seeded American in the national tournament at No. 13. Others to watch at the Open, but who have not been able to ascend to the most elite level, include 25-year-old Donald Young (ATP No. 47, lost in straight sets Monday), 24-year-old Steve Johnson (ATP No. 51), 21-year-old Jack Sock (ATP No. 55) and 26-year-old Sam Querrey (ATP No. 57).
The American women are perhaps slightly better off. Sloane Stephens, 21, (No. 21 seed, WTA No. 22) continues to make strides, but has still yet to completely break through, and 19-year-old Madison Keys (No. 27 seed, WTA No. 28), as well as unseeded 22-year-old Coco Vandeweghe (WTA No. 39) and 24-year-old Alison Riske (WTA No. 44) are possible upset threats. Of course, No. 19-seeded Venus Williams, (WTA No. 20), the elder of the two sisters at 34 and U.S. Open champion in 2000 and 2001—and winner of an opening round three-setter yesterday—remains in the mix, but is far removed from her own days as a rising young star.
With no obvious American successor in place, Serena, the oldest woman to ever hold the No. 1 world ranking as she advances toward 33 in late September, is one of the lone links to the country’s supremacy of yesteryear. Meanwhile, her star is also showing signs of dimming.
Sure, Serena is still No. 1 in the world and also the top-seeded player at this year’s U.S. Open, and thus poised to make a run at her third straight title there and the sixth of her career. But Serena has experienced one of the worst seasons of her 20-year pro career, having yet to play in a Grand Slam final in a single season for the first time since 2006—a year she only played in two major events. Prior to that, the letdown had happened just twice in her career dating back to her first Grand Slam victory, a 1999 U.S. Open triumph. All of this on the heels of a still peculiar episode at this year's Wimbledon, to many insufficiently explained as a viral illness, where she appeared in a daze and could not even bounce a ball (YouTube it). That all said, if she’s able to again take the crown in New York City the first weekend of September, she’ll tie erstwhile greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with 18 career major titles for fourth on the all-time list, behind only Helen Wills Moody (19), Steffi Graf (22) and Margaret Court (24).
Before Williams can think about her place among legends past, though, she must contend with her current Cincinnati opponent, friend and former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. And right now, after just a few games into the match, Williams is already talking to herself, down a break at 3-1. A double fault followed by an unforced error shortly thereafter gives Wozniacki the first set 6-2, and the slowly growing congregation—tardy but not wanting to miss their chance at seeing perhaps the greatest American female tennis player ever—might be wondering if Williams’ white fingernail polish is standing in for a flag of the same color.
Just like that, Williams seemingly flips a switch and crushes a forehand winner in route to breaking Wozniacki in the first game of the second set. The crowd offers loud applause and soon Williams looks like her old, expected self. “Stay angry, Serena!” a fan urges her on at 3-1. She is belting 120-mile per hour serves, booming returns with pinpoint accuracy, and bouncing around the court with the athletic genius only she possesses on the women’s tour. Williams takes the second set 6-2.
With the stands now near capacity, the two trade blows and breaks at 2-2, but Williams’ speed and punch, not seen before her in the women’s game less possibly her sister, help her to a 5-2 advantage in the deciding set. Wozniacki makes it interesting late by pushing it to 5-4 and is rewarded with strong cheers for her efforts, but with the match on Williams’ serve and new balls announced by the chair umpire, America’s best unsheathes a fresh racquet. A 121-mph rocket to go up 30-15 and then a forehand winner tucked in the line as Williams runs toward the net two points later closes it out at 6-4. Game. Set. Match.
Recognizing Williams’ power, athleticism and the best serve on tour after the loss, Wozniacki said this unique blend of talent doesn’t necessarily force her to game-plan any differently, but also acknowledged that she ran out of answers in the match.
“I know that I’m up against a great opponent and a great player, so I know that it’s not going to be easy,” said Wozniacki. “Usually I know that if I break her once, that’s great. And today I broke her quite a few times, and still that didn’t help me.”
Almost always the case when Williams plays to her abilities. She’d go on to dismantle Ana Ivanovic the next day in the final to take the Cincinnati title, and now has her sights set squarely on the U.S. Open.
“I mean, obviously to win it would be great, but we’ll see,” said Williams after the win over Wozniacki. “I’ll do the best that I can regardless. My mentality is great. I feel like just heading into the hard-court season has been really good for me and I’m really enjoying it. I love the surface at the Open, and I feel like I do really well on it, so I look forward to it.”
So at least for one more day, while the United States presses on pondering what lies ahead for its place in the sport, Serena Williams endures as its cornerstone. Even if late to the game, enjoy her while you can.