NEW YORK: Serena Williams rose from her sideline seat after a break during a training session inside Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday, and as she walked to the baseline at the end of the court covered by shade on a steamy morning, a few voices from the stands called out in unison, “Serena, we love you!”
About to hit some serves in preparation for the first round of the U.S. Open on Monday night — and what could wind up being the last singles match of her career — the 23-time Grand Slam champion did not break stride, although she did turn her head in the fans’ direction, acknowledging the sentiment with a smile.
Later, there were similar cries from the crowd and a couple of rounds of applause for Williams, who is also entered in doubles after she and her older sister, Venus, were given a wild-card entry by the U.S. Tennis Association.
“It’s the end of a great career. And hopefully, she can finish it off feeling good about herself and enjoying the moment and enjoying the crowd and listening to the people, to everyone, saying how much they love her,” said Rennae Stubbs, who won four Slam titles in women’s doubles and has been working with Williams, alongside coach Eric Hechtman, since last week. “She responds to that in a positive way and not in a negative way. She embraces it. My goal is to have her hopefully enjoy this moment.”
With the temperature in the 80s and not a trace of a breeze, Williams was out there a little less than an hour, pausing at one point to eat some fruit. This followed an earlier hitting session on a smaller practice court adjacent to Ashe.
“We’ve been friends for a long time. I’ve helped her and advised her in ways before. She just wanted a friendly voice around her. I’m her friend and she knows that I know tennis,” said Stubbs, whose previous coaching included time with another former No. 1, two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova. “She was just like: ‘Do you want to come on the court and give me some thoughts?’ And I said: ‘Of course.’”
While every match — in singles and doubles — and each practice session involving Williams, who turns 41 next month, is sure to draw plenty of eyeballs, there is more to know about the year’s last Grand Slam tournament.
Nadal and Race for No. 1
Novak Djokovic is missing a Grand Slam tournament for the second time this season because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19, and — combined with not earning any ranking points for his Wimbledon championship — his hold on No. 1 in the ATP rankings has slipped. He’ll be No. 7 on Monday. Five men have a chance to be No. 1 after the U.S. Open, and Rafael Nadal is among them. He has won four of his men’s-record 22 Grand Slam titles in New York, where he is competing for the first time since 2019. The 36-year-old Spaniard is 19-0 in majors this season, with trophies at the Australian Open in January and French Open in June, followed by a run to the Wimbledon semifinals in July before withdrawing because of a torn abdominal muscle, an injury he says is particularly “dangerous” and “risky” while serving now. Current No. 1 Daniil Medvedev, the defending U.S. Open champion, Carlos Alcaraz, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud need to reach the Sept. 11 final to have a shot at topping the rankings the next day.
Osaka is 'Anxious'
Naomi Osaka won two of her four Grand Slam titles at the U.S. Open so might normally be considered a true contender to leave New York with another. She has not been at her best, however, entering her first-round showdown against Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins on Tuesday night. Osaka, a former No. 1 now at No. 44, is on a three-match losing streak and is 2-6 since the start of April. “I feel like I would have lied, like, a day ago or so and said that I was really relaxed. But actually, when I practiced today, I felt very anxious,” Osaka said Saturday. “I think it’s ’cause I really want to do well, ’cause I feel I haven’t been doing well lately. I don’t know. It’s tough. Like, of course, you don’t want to lose in the first round of a Slam.”
Coaching comes to a major
For the first time at a Grand Slam tournament, in-match coaching will be allowed at the U.S. Open. Coaches must sit in designated courtside seats and only can communicate with players while they’re at the same end of the arena. Count 10th-seeded Taylor Fritz, the highest-ranked American man, among those who aren’t thrilled. “I don’t like it,” Fritz said. “Tennis is an individual sport, so why should someone else be able to help you?”
New Tiebreaker Format
It’s no longer enough to win seven points to claim a final-set tiebreaker at Flushing Meadows; now a player needs to get to 10. The U.S. Open joined the three other major tournaments in agreeing to adopt a uniform system this season: At 6-all in the third set of women’s matches and fifth set of men’s, a first-to-10, win-by-two tiebreaker will be used to determine the winner.