Perspective charges in from late last century, from the 1999 U.S. Open women’s final, from Williams’s upset title at 17 in a raging ruckus against then-No. 1 Martina Hingis, from Williams’s teenage ampleness of hair beads, from Williams’s reaction when Hingis’s last backhand fluttered long.
She brought her left hand toward her heart in some state not all that far from bewilderment, and she beamed from there to Melbourne and Paris and Wimbledon and back, and she yelled, “Oh, my God!” and she wondered: “Should I scream? Should I yell? Should I cry?” — and, yeah, that’s the same person, the same lifetime, as the almost-41-year-old who won 22 more major titles and will amplify this U.S. Open with a ciao.
Serena Williams hints at upcoming retirement: ‘The countdown has begun’
Score that as another form of bewilderment, 23 U.S. Opens after a girl — technically, a girl — won a sudden title, and a viewer might have wondered, “What’s in that person, besides the astonishment?”
Then the years proceeded to show, the way sports tend to do and tennis tends to do even more. We technically never saw what’s in there even as we constantly saw what’s in there.
What’s in there proved to be oh-my-God. What’s in there was a Grand Central Station of a mind, a concrete avenue of a gut and some inner skyscraper of a will. To call what’s in there “ferocious” is to sort of slight what’s in there. What’s in there burned way on past that point in time near the mid-2000s when — remember this? — onlookers wondered if she might lose interest and move on to other ventures, other careers outlasting hers. What’s in there grew familiar enough that there’s only one reaction to what Williams said in Vogue, as told to Rob Haskell: “The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus Grand Slams.”
What’s in there included this Michael Jordan aspect, from Vogue: “There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out. That drove me. I’ve built a career on channeling anger and negativity and turning it into something good.” And what’s in there included this utmost case of kid-sister envy: “I was so sad when I didn’t get all the early opportunities that Venus got, but that helped me. It made me work harder, turning me into a savage fighter. … I followed her around the world and watched her. When she lost, I understood why, and I made sure I wouldn’t lose the same way.”
What’s in there treated bushels of big points strewn across the years as though they belonged to her no matter how much they resisted at the time. What’s in there made her pure hell when cornered, almost as if it were bad strategy to corner her while it wasn’t all that good, either, to refrain from cornering her. What’s in there played on into four more major finals after a harrowing childbirth in 2017, even as it might have worked against her in those four as she tried to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles, even as that record pales next to Williams’s 23 given modern upgrades in the steepness of Grand Slam tasks.
What’s in there? It could push the gamesmanship across the line to those age-old tennis netherworlds, to that row with that U.S. Open lineswoman in a 2009 semifinal, the row with that U.S. Open chair umpire in the 2011 final, maybe even that row with the U.S. Open chair umpire in the 2018 final.
What’s in there? Watch the 1999 final with the benefit of 23 years, and early clues appear. She lost two championship points at 5-3 in the second set against the world’s No. 1 player but wouldn’t cave. She lost her serve at 5-4 but wouldn’t cave. She faced Hingis’s set point in the fracas of a six-deuce game while Williams served at 5-6 but wouldn’t cave. She mentored all the elders in her news conference when she said, after winning, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4): “There comes a time when you have to stop caving. You have to stop. I encourage all of you guys to stop.”
A roomful laughed, as she had left evidence of not-caving across that old draw — down a set to Kim Clijsters in the third round, again to Conchita Martinez in the fourth round, again to Monica Seles in the quarterfinals, then a lost 6-1 second set against Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals.
In the same life, all the way through the balance of her teens and the entireties of her 20s and 30s, it figures she’s loath to use the word “retirement.” She’s in the pages of the September issue of Vogue saying, “I’ve been thinking of this as a transition,” and as “evolving away from tennis,” such that she has hardly discussed it with her husband, “can’t even” discuss it with her parents and finds the topic brings “an uncomfortable lump in my throat, and I start to cry.” She points to the happy retirements of Ashleigh Barty at 25 and Caroline Wozniacki at 29 but notes the differences from person to person, noting there’s “no happiness in the topic for me,” and says: “I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain [about leaving]. It’s the hardest thing I could ever imagine. I hate it.”
So even as “something’s got to give” and she would like to have another child and she’s excited about her investment business, it’s easy to imagine one more reemergence somewhere up ahead.
That might be erroneous, but that, too, stems from long since knowing what’s in there.