The wind was one of those winds that sweeps in a new season, and might bring spirits besides. It sent Victoria Azarenka’s balls dancing unpredictably across the net and sailed Serena Williams’s shots long. It kept the loose skirt of Serena’s dress swirling above her waist and into her arms.1 Worse, much worse, the wind battered Serena’s ball toss, perhaps the single most important (and overlooked) part of her game. Her serve flows from her ball toss — smooth, precise, perfect — and her dominance flows from her serve. But in the wind her toss was drifting. She was getting hardly half of her first serves into play.
She was in trouble, serving at 4-5, two points from losing the first set. She’d double-faulted, uncharacteristically, at 40-30 to bring the game to deuce. Much of the tennis so far had been ugly — wild shots, clumsy footwork. She’d even been called for a foot fault — recalling a moment in Ashe from 2009 that she’d probably like to forget. But she’s older now, calmer and more serene, and she kept her focus on the ball. The breeze was shifting. It was nearing six o’clock. The play picked up. Azarenka responded to a monster backhand winner from Serena by taking a machete to the ball, slicing a drop shot that dipped over the net and died on the spot. In the next point, Serena moved so aggressively into the court that she was hitting backhands from the service line. These were not ordinary rally shots. When she pulled her racket back, her body coiled into a crouch, and the force of her compact swing and follow-through drove her legs into a deep lunge. She finished the point at the net, hammering a swinging backhand volley into Azarenka’s open court. By this point Serena wasn’t grunting when she hit the ball, she was roaring. She was straining every one of her vocal cords in a rough, throaty shout.
She had reached that level only she can reach. You could sense it in the stands, in the ripple of expectation. She stood at the baseline, very focused, very calm. The flag over the scoreboard flapped in the breeze. Her blush-pink skirt whipped above her waist. The ball glowed in her fingertips. Her grip on the ball was gentle.
From the back of Section 204 came the gnarly yell of an old woman: “You need to ace that ass!”
Serena rocked back, tossed, and ripped.
“See? She aced that ass!”
Serena won the next five games.
If Serena plays with the power, grace, and intelligence that she is capable of, or even if she plays with only a good fraction of the power, grace, and intelligence that she is capable of, then her opponent is usually lucky to win a couple games. Serena won the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open — the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament! — against Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0, 6-0, winning the first set in less time than it takes to make a sandwich. In the semis, she faced Li Na, fifth-ranked but probably the third-best hardcourt player in the draw. Li Na is fast and fit, an excellent ball striker with an increasingly versatile game and a coach with a good track record against Williams. Serena beat Li Na 6-0, 6-3.
I slipped into a lower section of Ashe to watch the semifinal against Li, close enough to see the way the ball spun. What’s striking about Serena’s shots from that distance isn’t their speed (though the speed can be ridiculous) but the way she mixes the pace, angles and trajectories, the way she shifts from a scrambling defensive shot to an offensive drive. You could hear the shuffle of her shoes as she used small movements to scamper and slide, and you could see the stretch and strength of her body as she used her outstanding flexibility to keep her balanced while she threw her weight into her groundstrokes. You could also see how intensely she focused. After she’d pumped her fist and screamed “Come on!”, she would fix her eyes on the ground.
It can be extremely satisfying to watch Serena win a set 6-0. It’s the rarest thing, witnessing the greatness of the greatest. The thing is, if you’re watching her play at a high personal level, you’re probably not watching much of a competition. When Serena is tested these days, it’s usually because she’s tight. Her serve gets wonky. Her forehand doesn’t hit its mark. She plays from her heels, tangles her feet. It’s hard to believe that she gets nervous, but she can look nervous, and she starts to press. She overhits, or — as she did during her loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon — she plays too soft and safe, allowing an inspired opponent to push her back. Sometimes she is injured, as she was when Sloane Stephens beat her during the Australian Open. A few players can give her trouble, though not consistently. Sometimes Serena loses, though rarely.
The hope has been that someone would emerge as her clear rival, someone who could both test Serena and make her play her best. For the past couple years, the only real candidate has been Azarenka. She is one of the best returners, baseline hitters, and movers in the game, and her game has some of the best range. She came within two points of beating Serena in the finals at the Open last year in a remarkable match, and she has beaten her twice in the past 12 months. Still, coming into the final, there were doubts. When Azarenka had beaten Serena in Doha and Mason, Ohio, Serena had been flat.
Vika hasn’t gotten much traction in the United States. She’s most famous for a grunt that a lot of people hate — although it’s more of a strange bird call than a grunt. Her relationship with Redfoo, maybe, hasn’t won her many hearts. She doesn’t appear in a lot of commercials. She doesn’t often smile on the court. She sometimes wears capri leggings under her skirt. These seem like not very good reasons not to like someone, though, when set against how absurdly charming — how much like an awkward, endearing, somewhat unusual human being — she is when you take a minute to notice her. In press conferences, she has become articulate, graceful, and open. Redfoo seems to make her happy, so haters can shut up. Besides, she’s the kind of girl who falls in love with Marvin Gaye and Motown not because her boyfriend’s father, Berry Gordy, happens to have founded the Motown record company, but because she saw Motown the Musical. She’s the kind of girl who, when asked whether she’d be rooting for Rafa or Djokovic in the men’s final, answered Rafa, because when he practiced he took off his shirt.
Serena was up 4-1, a double break, and serving. I was making a bet on the number of minutes left in the match. Dark was coming, earlier each day. It was getting cold. For much of the second set, Vika had reverted to being a player I could hardly bear to watch, one who threw in three double faults in a single game. She’d played like this in the semifinals against Flavia Pennetta — competent but joyless.
There was no way the match wasn’t over. Except that then, so close to her seventeenth grand slam title, Serena began to crack. More astonishingly, Vika took advantage. With her powerful groundstrokes and a new energy about her, Azarenka pounded, pushed, and pulled at small openings. The players yanked each other wide, up and across the court. There were ugly errors but it hardly mattered. The atmosphere was tense, thrilling. The woman in the back of section 204 was losing her mind. Azarenka was going for corners and often hitting them, and Serena for a change had to match her opponent’s shots. The set went to a tiebreaker. The tiebreak stretched to 6-6. After Williams lost the set with two bad errors, she threw her racket toward the chair.
It didn’t last. Perhaps it couldn’t last, not yet. The third set was lopsided — though the 6-1 score makes it sound more so than it felt. At the end they were still running, even if, more and more often, the rallies ended with Azarenka firing a forehand out. Even when the score was 5-1, even after two hours and 45 minutes of play, the intensity was there. I didn’t want to look away. Behind me, behind the stadium, the bright evening star hung from the hook of the moon.
The women hugged at the net and seemed to mean it. Then Serena began to bounce up and down, shrieking with joy. For once, everyone was cheering for Serena. It extended outside the stadium, this wave of appreciation and awe. Bill Clinton was waiting to give her a hug. There were rumors, unconfirmed, that some guys had even switched the channel from football. What they saw was one of the greatest athletes in history, one of the most fascinating people in sports.
The wind was still edgy. Vika sat down in her chair and cried. She had wanted more.
It can be too easy for spectators to assign moral victories to losers. Probably, losing is just crushing, especially when you’re so close to winning — so close again. On Saturday, during the men’s semifinal, there had been another riveting, brutal contest played in Arthur Ashe. Stanislas Wawrinka had lost to Novak Djokovic in a match that took five sets and four hours. It was a match that Wawrinka, who has always been the other Swiss, could have — really should have — won. Afterward, like Azarenka, he was teary.
He had pushed himself so hard that he could barely stand. His right leg was a mess. In the press conference afterward, he’d had to slouch due to cramping. He has a tattoo on his forearm, lines plucked from Worstward Ho, a dark piece by Samuel Beckett, which have been turned into a self-help koan: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Asked to “ruminate” about the quotation after the match, Wawrinka mumbled something about practice courts. But you get the sense that he’s familiar with the novella’s more nihilistic resonances. Other lines from Worstward Ho might have suited just as well:
Move in. Out of. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still. All of old. Nothing else ever.
Pain of bones till no choice but up and stand. Somehow up. Somehow stand. Remains of mind where none for the sake of pain.
But there was more than pain. There was the struggle, and however meaningless it really was, those who watched it made meaning of it. There was one game within the match that I’ll never forget. Wawrinka was serving at 1-1 in the fifth set. He was serving terribly. He couldn’t buy a first serve with all the Swiss bank accounts in the world. But he was playing the best, bravest tennis a man can play against Djokovic, who is, as Wawrinka said after the match, “so fucking strong.” He was running down overheads. He was whipping backhands down the line. He was doing everything he could. But every game point he earned, Djokovic erased. With an advantage once again, after 20 minutes and endless deuces, after sprints to reach drop shots and sprints to track down lobs, after 20-, 30-shot rallies against the best defender in the game, Wawrinka stood at the baseline. His chest was heaving. His face was red and creased with pain and disbelief. He looked up.
The crowd was growing louder. He looked around. People were rising to their feet and shouting his name. He raised his tired arms and asked for more. He was trying to catch his breath, to buy a little time before he had to hit yet another serve. But something else was also going on. His face twitched into a smile.
Then the Djoker naturally flapped his arms and also encouraged the crowd, and everyone cheered and laughed. But that didn’t erase how moving the moment was. Wawrinka, always known as the second Swiss, had asked the crowd in the biggest tennis stadium in the world to cheer for him, and it had responded. It wasn’t enough to help him win the match. It was barely enough to help him throw a first-serve winner down the T.
But he’d be lying if he said he didn’t dream about this kind of love.