The first “Come on!” of the match came in the sixth game. Serena Williams, forced to play catch-up, had conjured a point from her prime. Staying close to the baseline, she took control with a backhand crosscourt return, followed it up with a backhand down the line, and finally a forehand down the line that went unreturned. For a little while, Emma Raducanu experienced what it was like to be under the pump from Williams.
While the 40-year-old showed some sparks of brilliance during the opening round of Cincinnati Open, Raducanu won their first-ever contest 6-4, 6-0. The score didn’t quite match the hype, but the Williams-Raducanu showdown brought together two players at the opposite end of their career arcs but joined in struggle ahead of the US Open. The final Grand Slam of the year, which begins on 29 August, will see the 19-year-old Raducanu defend a major for the very first time. More importantly, it will serve as Williams’ swansong.
Though she hasn’t put a date on it, Williams recently announced that she was “evolving away from tennis”. It would make sense if she bid farewell at her home Slam, 23 years after she clinched her first major at the 1999 US Open. There have been times, during her decades-long domination of tennis, when Williams has turned up at a Grand Slam event cold and still run away with it.
But Williams, who is now less than a month away from turning 41 and has returned from a year-long injury only this summer, may not find it as easy. She has played only four matches since making a comeback at Wimbledon and lost three. The lead up to her potential final Slam has not been ideal, and Williams knows it. After losing to Raducanu in Cincinnati, she didn’t wait to soak in the atmosphere or indulge in emotional goodbyes. A frustrated—angry even—Williams shook her opponent’s hand and was off to the locker room in a flash.
Williams has admitted that she has made peace with the possibility of finishing her career at 23 singles Grand Slams, one short of the all-time record of 24 majors held by Margaret Court. But, whatever her age, however deep the competition, Williams, riding a wave of support, is unlikely to give up on her last chance of getting there without a fight.
While Williams, who transformed and transcended tennis, played with a target on her back her entire career, Raducanu discovered the perils of it in the past 12 months. Having started the 2021 US Open as a qualifier, the British teenager scripted one of the most daring breakthroughs of recent times as she won the title without dropping a set. Young, fresh-faced, successful and blessed with a winning personality, she quickly became the media and advertisers’ dream.
Even though Raducanu has shown a measure of maturity in handling the brickbats that came with her new-found fame, she hasn’t been able to recreate that winning form on the tennis court. Since last year’s US Open, she has compiled a win-loss record of 15-18. The 19-year-old has changed coaches four times in that time, and has been unable to string together more than two wins in a row. This year’s US Open is not a make-or-break Slam for her young career, but it will still mark an important milestone. It will be interesting to see how she handles the pressure of a title defence.
As the final Grand Slam of the year, one would expect the US Open to neatly tie the loose ends of the season’s main narratives. But in recent times, the major has been somewhat of a non sequitur. Home to the biggest tennis arena in the world—the Arthur Ashe stadium, which is celebrating 25 years this year—and the most irreverent fans, the US Open thrives on chaos theory.
Perhaps because it comes at the end of a tiring Grand Slam season, or because of frenetic, rebellious energy in the stands, the Open has launched a number of first-time champions. The Big 3 of men’s tennis—Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer—have each dominated a major. By their lofty standards, US Open has been a tad more unpredictable.
Six players—Juan Martin del Potro (2009), Andy Murray (2012), Marin Cilic (2014), Stanislas Wawrinka (2016), Dominic Thiem (2020) and Daniil Medvedev (2021) —have won the US Open outside of the Big 3, the most at a major since Federer began his reign in 2004. The last player to successfully defend a US Open men’s title was Federer, way back in 2008, when he captured the last of his five-in-a-row US Opens. The last time a women’s champion defended her title was Serena Williams in 2014.
However, the prospect of history being re-written is never too far in men’s tennis these days. Question marks remain over Novak Djokovic’s participation at the hard-court major. But if the US government does relax its rules and let an unvaccinated Djokovic enter the country, the Serb will be targeting a record-equalling 22 majors.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal is bidding for his 23rd major, which will put him level with Serena Williams as the most successful player in the Open Era. After withdrawing from the Wimbledon semi-final with an abdominal injury, Nadal made a comeback at the Cincinnati Masters last week. But he was brought down by a resurgent Borna Coric, who is scripting a spectacular comeback of his own, in the opening round. “You lose. You move forward,” the 36-year-old said. “I know the way.” Though Nadal is a bit iffy on his serve because of the injury, he will be hoping to end an incredible 2022 just the way he started it: with a hard-court Grand Slam title.
Unlike the French Open or Wimbledon, neither Nadal nor Djokovic is an overwhelming favourite in New York. Coric, who had undergone shoulder surgery last year and was competing in ATP Challenger events just a few months ago, made the biggest statement of intent as he won the Cincinnati Masters. During the week, Coric defeated players of the calibre of Nadal, Wimbledon semi-finalist Cameron Norrie, and World No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Since making his first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon, Nick Kyrgios has also emerged as a major threat. The Australian won the singles and doubles title in Washington and has developed some momentum in the hard-court season with a nine-match winning streak. But it remains to be seen how Kyrgios, who admitted to being homesick, holds up emotionally.
Like Raducanu, Daniil Medvedev too heads into the Slam as a defending champion for the very first time. Since his 2021 triumph, the Russian player has had his share of highs and lows. Within the first four months of 2022, he lost the Australian Open final to Nadal after being two sets up, peaked at World No. 1, underwent a hernia surgery, and saw his country being banned by tennis bodies due to the invasion of Ukraine. Though the ATP allowed Russians to play under a neutral flag, players from Russia and Belarus were barred from Wimbledon. This will be Medvedev’s first real crack at a Grand Slam title since the Australian Open. The US Open is the Slam of opportunity. With comebacks, records and a Williams farewell in the mix, it promises another dramatic twist in the tennis story of 2022.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.