Mailbag: Can Serena Williams Win the U.S. Open?

Hey everyone,

Less than two weeks until the U.S. Open. With that in mind…


• Stay tuned for a new podcast coming tomorrow outlining themes and storylines for the 2019 U.S. Open.

• Next week we’ll pop our “U.S. Open tips” column midweek, in lieu of this mailbag.

• And then the 2019 U.S. Open seed reports and preview roundtable once the draw is out.

• A reminder to New York tennis fans that both the U.S. Open qualies and Bronx WTA event are free and open to the public.

• Full disclosure: we were going to do a podcast with Bianca Andreescu—now No. 14; toast of the WTA Tour—who was cool enough to avail herself after her triumph in Toronto. But we were both in hotels and the audio quality was rough.

Here, instead are some outtakes from a fun conversation:

Q: You are tearing it up this year. You’re 38-4. You’re now up to world No. 14. And yet I don’t get the sense you’re terribly surprised by that.

A: I am! I really am. A year ago I was outside the top 100 and I’m now 14. That’s crazy. I’m happy to be back on court playing and winning.

Q: Help us understand this. Ten months ago you’re playing in South Carolina for gas money. Make sense of this.

A: It’s hard.  But I believe I’m capable of great things for the sport. And I’m slowly trying to prove it.

Q: Slowly?

A: Well, not slowly. But I’ve put in hard work. I’ve been dedicated since I was 12 years old and it’s all paying off. And I’m grateful.

Q: I wish I could remember who said this. But someone put it like this to me: you have all the strokes and you’re a nice athlete. But what you really have is this competitive IQ.

A: Meaning?

Q: You’re winning 6-4 in the third. You’re winning 7-5 in the third. You’re winning tight match after tight match. Where does that come from?

A: I have this fire in me that really shows on the court and helps me.

Q: What’s the toughest part of the job? 

A. Injuries. They’re the toughest part for most athletes, I’d think. You’re sitting on your ass and not doing what you want to do, when everyone else is playing.  

Q: What’s it like when you walk into the locker room? How do you perceive how you are being perceived?     

A: Well, I know that a lot more people are starting to know my name, and know that I am—or can be—a challenge if I were to see them. I don’t show it, obviously, but I feel like I’m one of the top players right now. I’m feeling really confident. 

Q. Seven times, you’ve played a top-10 opponent. You’ve won each time. Which is crazy. But is there one signature match, one win you’ve especially enjoyed?

A. I’d say the final of Indian Wells [against Angelique Kerber]. That was a crazy, crazy, crazy final. The conditions were not easy. I was playing a former No. 1 in the world, a Grand Slam champion. I try not to focus on who’s on the other side of the net. I don’t feel intimidated. I feel like I do my thing. I enjoy it. And it’s certainly paying off. 

Q. You really like the Thunder more than the Raptors?

A: That’s fake news!

Q: Set the record straight. 

A. I support every team from Toronto. Especially the one that wins the NBA championship. It’s awesome.

Q: How sore are you right now?

A: Not that sore, honestly. Because the final was only four games. I’m proud with how my body held up. 

Q: I have a crazy theory—

A: Hit with me it.

Q: These injuries suck—your word—but they’re a blessing in disguise in a way. You have this constant, real reminder how fragile this can be. 

A: I’ll buy that. You’re injured and you ask, “How can I avoid this?” I look at all these aspects of my life. Training, nutrition, recovery. From now on I want to handle schedule correctly. But it makes you look at things with another perspective. And then when you start to play again, you have a deeper appreciation. Enjoy the moment.

Q: You’re enjoying this, yes?

A: Come on.…But I’m not satisfied yet. I really do believe I’m capable of great things in this sport



Do you think Serena Williams can win the U.S. Open?
Sabine, Rome

• Is Nutella the original hazelnut treat? Does George R.R. Martin like the captain hat? Is Diego Schwartzman the last player in the top 100 to get wet when it rains? Come on, Sabine! We’re talking Serena Williams here! 

Seriously, my stock answer: a lot has to go right...but a lot CAN go right. (The draw must cooperate. The weather must cooperate. The schedule must cooperate. The nerves must cooperate. Serena could use some help from some minesweepers (a la Alison Riske at Wimbledon.) Serena needs to look through the windshield and not in the rearview mirror when she returns to Ashe…yet: She will benefit from knowing she’ll play only on Ashe. She’ll benefit from crowd support. She’ll benefit from a day off between matches (i.e. enough time for a seized back to heal.) She’ll benefit from knowing she’s reached the finals at three majors in the last 13 months.

Buy or sell Azarenka…? I'm afraid I know the answer....

• I would need to know the price. And I would need to know the target strike price. Here’s what she has going for her: a proven track record, a willingness to compete, a strong sense of self, a wide-open era. Here are the concerns: she’s north of 30 and her ball doesn’t have the pop it once did. And since her maternity leave—and, perhaps relevantly, a brutal custody battle—the wins have been hard to come by…which means match play has been hard to come by. Which exacts a price on even the most confident players. 

Confession: I catch myself rooting for Azarenka. She’s matured into a wise soul who isn’t afraid to put herself out there. She’s good company. She’s paid her dues and is a better player than her ranking suggests. If she never wins another Slam but hangs around as a dangerous player, a fine doubles player, and a good-for-the-enterprise cast member…it might not meet her goals, but where’s the shame in that?

I want to put in my now-annual plug: Bike to the U.S. Open! You can park at bike racks outside the Queens Museum, putting you right by the "back" entrance to the tennis (the one subway riders don't use). Pro tip: prepare to lock your helmet to your bike as you may not be able to bring it inside.

Second tip: Don’t bother with dedicated Armstrong seats during early rounds, when the crowds are more dispersed. The closest unreserved seats get you close to the action - much closer than the nosebleeds in Ashe. 

Going twice this year and I couldn’t be more excited!

• Thanks, Esha. We’ve been soliciting suggestions for the U.S. Open.  Eat here, don’t eat there. Explore Queens. Bring sunblock but not as an aerosol. A) We’re still open for suggestions and will publish the compilation next week. B) One of you suggested doing this—soliciting tips from locals and tournament veterans—at the other three Slams. Someone remind me, but I’m totally down for that. C) You guys were great. As toxic a site as Twitter can be, it can also be a great connector.

What is the deal with Madison Keys?  She obviously has talent but she seems to underachieve frequently.  I’ve watched a lot of her matches and she makes way too many errors.  It appears to me that she hasn’t learned to win and when she’s not playing well.  What does she need to do to reach her potential?
—Andy Krouse , Reading, Penn.

• I think you basically diagnosed the problem. For all the players who betray irrational confidence, Keys sometimes betrays irrational lack of self-believe. She’s a first-class athlete and, off the ground, she might hit the biggest ball in tennis. Elegant power, we call it. She frustrates easily, though. And, as you note, doesn’t always handle it well, when she’s not at her best.

A couple things about Kyrgios... 

First, he was quoted a while back about Djokovic, "I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked" and described Djokovic's victory celebration moves as "cringe-worthy".  Uh, Nick, both of those observations would quite accurately describe your very pre-planned stunt of asking someone in the crowd where you should serve.  Puh-leeze!  It was gag-worthy.  

Second, ask anyone who has ever played tennis (or any sport for that matter) at any level their reaction to competing against someone not giving a 100% effort... they are insulted.  It's a slap in the face to have an opponent take a perfectly makeable shot and hot-dog it between their legs for a lesser shot.  Your reaction is always, "Why did you do that? Why didn't you try your best to make the best shot you could against me? Why am I even out here?"  We already have Mansour Bahrami who does a wonderful clowning job... in exhibitions!  We don't need a professional assuming this role on the ATP tour.  

Ok, one last thing...I get a very strong sense that the tennis media is playing Emperor's New Clothes with this guy.  It seems like the commentators are going with the 'good for the sport' line but not really believing what they're saying.  I don't sense conviction in their statements.  Do all of you really think, "Oh, this is great!  Yep, thank God Nick is out there being silly." I don't buy it.  You're probably wondering, "But Shayne, what do you really think?" Yes, I dislike the guy but moreover, I dislike what he brings to the sport I love.
Shayne, Louisville

• We condition ourselves—now more than ever—to be binary creatures. We love or we hate. We are stridently for or vehemently against. Someone rocks or they suck. Here’s a plea to get out of this either/or comfort zone. Maybe Serena should have behaved differently…and the chair umpire should have used more discretion. Maybe Djokovic didn’t read the room and made some unfortunate alliances on the ATP Board…but he still deserves credit for taking on the role and for taking it seriously.

Like with Kyrgios, there’s a continuum. There are way too many indefensible acts to ignore or chalk up to “color.” Yet there are way too many endearing acts and instances of real solicitude to dismiss him as an irredeemable jerk. He is a complex guy. As I try to write delicately, I think there’s a mental health dimension to this story that too often goes unacknowledged. There is a certain accessibility and open-ness and generosity not only with candor but with time, that I find really endearing. 

As for your specifics….the shtick of asking a crowd-member where to serve? I love it. (And spare me the complaint that it’s illegal coaching.) One man’s violation of the tennis social compact is another’s entertainment.

The lack of effort? I hate it. It cheats the fans and the opponent. I remember we have Mischa Zverev on the podcast after Kyrgios tanked against him. He was genuinely—and not unreasonably—offended that Kyrgios didn’t see fit to play to give an honest effort against him.   

Winning a major on the PGA Tour earns a laundry list of exemptions.  One of my favorites is the Masters champion being able to play in the event for the rest of their lives.  Why couldn't something like this work in tennis?  I'm not suggesting we let Manuel Orantes in the main draw of the U.S. Open every year, but how about automatic entry for all Grand Slam champions who are not considered retired from the tour?  That way the Andy Murrays and JMDPs of the world wouldn't have to worry about being granted a wild card when they're working their way back from injury and have a low ranking. The fans would much rather see a former champion play than the 104th ranked player.
Blake Redabaugh, Denver

• I’d be for it with the some provisions. We all want to see Murray and DelPo over the No. 104 guy. That’s a no-brainer. But it’s also easy to see some players (Lleyton…cough-cough…Hewitt cough-cough) taking advantage of this and playing until his night nurse ministers to him at changeovers. Or someone on-site anyway for coaching and or television (Thomas Johansson? Marion Bartoli?) shrugging their shoulders and, saying, “Hell, I’m here anyway. Why not play? Worst case scenario, it’s a $50,000 afternoon and some soreness in the morning.”)

But I think you’re on to something. Especially as A) the majors grow in prestige and B) careers extend, is it not a win-win to make life easier for former champions. Why not make a path for Andy Roddick to come back for Wimbledon? Or for Delpo to get healthy and get into a draw without groveling for a wild card Or, Wozniacki deciding at age 40 to see if she can find magic for seven rounds. You would want some ground rules. Players must pass a physical. Unless returning from injury, they must have played X sanctioned matches in the last year. But, overall, I like this idea.

Was watching the Gasquet-RBA match in Canada and it hit me: does Gasquet ever win a match against a higher ranked guy? He has the most beautiful strokes and he appears to be in shape, so is it all mental? Is it fair to say he never wins a big match?
—David Bloom, New York

• This is the kind of FanGraphs analysis that should be easy to come by: Which players have the highest and lowest rates of beating players ranked above them? 

As for Gasquet, I’m trying off-hand to think of signature wins.  Wimbledon takedown of Roddick and a clay win against Federer are the only ones springing to mind. He’s 2-18 against Federer, 0-16 against Nadal and 1-13 against Djokovic. That backhand is the ballstriking equivalent of a supermodel. But …yeah, we’re going to end this analogy now. Lovely strokes production but not a lot of finishing power and, candidly, not a guy that you ever sensed relished the battle. 

Interesting you mentioned Mats Wilander in your last mailbag.  I truly believe he may be the most unheralded multiple Grand Slam winner in tennis.  He had the same amount of GS wins as McEnroe and if you were to ask many fans who won more, most would likely mention Mac.  Perhaps him being sandwiched between Borg and Edberg or winning “quietly” contributes to this but, I’d love to see Mats get a little more love when we talk about tennis’ greats.  Who in your opinion falls in this category on the women’s side?
Neil Grammer, Toronto

• I would add that Mats is in the running for Good Guy GOAT. One story that gets passed around: Wilander is waiting for his flight back from Australia, wearing a backpack and talking with fans and journalists. He is asked, “Why aren’t you in the first-class lounge with the beautiful people?” His response: “I’d rather be here.”

As for women, the obvious is Steffi Graf. Totally by her choice, she has distanced (divorced?) herself from tennis. So it that we sometimes forget that absolute dominance she inflicted on the field. (Consider: how seldom do you hear about her winning all four and an Olympic gold in one year?)


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