NEW YORK: Serena Williams will take her final bow on tennis’s biggest stage at Flushing Meadows but the US Open is unlikely to provide a fairytale finish for one of sport’s most fascinating figures.

Tennis has been preparing for this moment for a while, watching as Serena transitioned from champion, to mother, wife, entrepreneur and finally tennis part-timer but in some ways her decision seemed to catch everyone off guard. Even Serena herself.

Serena signalled her intention to retire in a Vogue article in early August, saying she was “evolving away from tennis” but never confirming the US Open as her final event.

The tennis world, however, is preparing a massive retirement party at Flushing Meadows.

Certainly there could be no more fitting place to bring the curtain down on one of tennis’s great careers in a city that has been in her corner from the very beginning, fuelling runs to six US Open crowns.

It is the place where Serena won the first of 23 singles Grand Slam titles in 1999 and if Hollywood were writing the script, it would also be where she would win her last, an elusive 24th major that would pull her level with Margaret Court at the top of the all-time list.

But even the most hardcore Serena supporters will find it difficult to believe the 40-year-old can conjure up that kind of magic.

Serena’s recent results indicate the pessimism is well-founded. In her first match after her retirement announcement, Serena lost 6-2, 6-4 to Belinda Bencic in Toronto.

In her next outing, in Cincinnati, she was routed 6-4, 6-0 by reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu, the British teenager who was born three years after Serena’s first Grand Slam victory.

With Serena not expected to mount a sustained challenge, all eyes will be on Poland’s world number one Iga Swiatek in the women’s draw.

The 21-year-old was the form player in women’s tennis earlier this year, reeling off victories at the Qatar Open, Indian Wells and Miami Open before claiming wins on clay in Stuttgart and Rome en route to her second Slam singles title at the French Open.

However, Swiatek has struggled to recapture that dominance during the North American hardcourt season, making early exits at both the Cincinnati Masters and Canadian Open.

One player to benefit from the Serena hysteria will be Raducanu, who captivated tennis fans last year with her Cinderella run from qualifier to Grand Slam champion.

Without a title since her US Open victory, the 19-year-old has been under tremendous scrutiny and she will no doubt be happy for Serena to hog all the limelight as she eases into her title defence.

Twice US Open champion Naomi Osaka cannot be overlooked but has struggled for fitness after sustaining an Achilles injury at Wimbledon and has also not found any success on the hard courts.

The form player ahead of the year’s final Grand Slam is big-hitting Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia, who emerged from the shadows in spectacular style by becoming the first qualifier to win a WTA 1000 event. She eliminated three top 10 opponents en route to capturing the Cincinnati Open.

NADAL EYES 23RD MAJOR

In the men’s draw, Rafael Nadal targets a fifth US Open and 23rd Grand Slam title with his path to the title no longer blocked by Novak Djokovic, whose refusal to get vaccinated has ruled him out of a second major this year.

Nineteen years after making his debut, the 36-year-old Nadal drags his injury-prone body into a tournament he won in 2010, 2013, 2017 and 2019, the year of his last appearance.

The Spaniard has had to sit out the US Open four times in his career and there are once again fresh doubts over his physical ability to survive a gruelling two weeks at Flushing Meadows.

Since an abdomen injury forced him to hand Nick Kyrgios a walkover into the Wimbledon final, Nadal has played just once — a first-up loss to Borna Coric in Cincinnati — but his return is a big boost to the men’s draw which has been depleted by the absence of Djokovic and Alexander Zverev.

Nadal admitted on Friday that he had been protecting his injury in Cincinnati but had been able to practice with intensity in the build-up to the US Open.

I take it very easy in the Cincinnati, too, in the practices. The match, I try my best without putting all the effort there on the serve,” Nadal said. I hope to be ready for the action. That’s the only thing that I can say. Taking care with the serve, being honest. But in general terms, yes, I am practicing at high level of intensity.”

Dominic Thiem, the men’s 2020 champion, will also return to Flushing Meadows after his absence last year due to injury.

Without a clear favourite in the men’s draw, Nadal’s biggest threat is expected to come from reigning champion and world number one Daniil Medvedev.

The Russian went down in five sets in the 2019 final to Nadal and has also finished runner-up on the hardcourts of the Australian Open in the last two editions.

World number two and 2020 runner-up Zverev misses out through injury while fourth-ranked Carlos Alcaraz, a quarter-finalist in 2021, looks to convert potential into a maiden Slam triumph at 19.

I feel stronger and more prepared than the last year,” Alcaraz said.“I have played long matches, tough matches this year against the top players. I think I’m more ready in this tournament than last year.”

Apart from Felix Auger-Aliassime, a semi-finalist last year, the rest of the current top 10 have endured a bittersweet relationship with New York.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Casper Ruud, Cameron Norrie and Hubert Hurkacz have all yet to make the second week.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2022

Categorized in: