The Serena Effect

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An improbable run at what may be her final U.S. Open.
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It’s one of those sports stories that has become big enough to fascinate even people who don’t normally follow sports. At 7 p.m. Eastern tonight, Serena Williams’s improbable run at what seems to be her final U.S. Open will continue. To put it in context, my colleague Kurt Streeter — a Times columnist who played competitive tennis when he was young — is taking over today’s newsletter. — David Leonhardt
So far, so Serena.
As has happened repeatedly during the past two decades, the U.S. Open is feeding off the electric energy provided by Serena Williams. She is, of course, one of several hundred professional tennis players at Flushing Meadows, a list that includes legends such as Rafael Nadal and promising upstarts like Coco Gauff.
But as long as she remains in the hunt for her 24th Grand Slam singles title, Serena will be the prime mover here. Everyone else is playing in her orbit.
And wow, what an orbit it is at Flushing Meadows now. I’ve played a lot of tennis in my life — I was the first Black captain of the men’s tennis team at the University of California, Berkeley — and I’ve watched a ton of great, big-time sporting events as a reporter. Serena’s matches so far, especially her first round in singles, go down as some of the most diverse events I’ve ever witnessed. To me, the crowd looked very much like New York, and that says a lot.
The Serena effect strikes again!
So it should be for the woman who appears to be moving on from the game after becoming arguably the greatest tennis player ever, male or female. And so it should be for the woman who barged past cloistered tennis gates here in 1999, when she won the U.S. Open at 17, becoming the first African American woman to win a major championship since Althea Gibson in 1958 and the first African American player, male or female, since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975.
Think of all the memorable moments Serena has had playing under the bright lights in Queens. Six singles titles, the last in 2014. Ten trips to the championship match, most recently in 2019.
Consider the dramatic comebacks and the smattering of contests that have ended in deep controversy (see: Osaka, Naomi, U.S. Open, 2018). Remember that she has barely played on the tour over the past year, and that when she has, she’s looked flat-out average and very much her 40 years.
And yet her match on Wednesday night, a stirring three-set win over No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit, may well go down as one of her most memorable. The crowd of 29,959 spectators — a record for a U.S. Open night session — swooned and shouted for their heroine to battle back and come through, all with hurricane-force energy that shook Arthur Ashe Stadium stadium to its foundation.
Beat back the young, fresh-legged No. 2 seed and rise from the depths after an ugly second set by conjuring some of the old genius? Yep, that’s so very Serena. Perfectly on brand.
As always, Serena dismissed the doubters and played with an eye-popping gusto. I got goose bumps, and I wasn’t the only one.
Of course, the extra attention showered upon Serena comes from her recent announcement that she plans to “evolve” away from tennis so she can devote full attention to having a second child, running her fashion business and working as a venture capitalist.
It’s assumed that this event will be the last time we see her play meaningful tennis.
Will it?
Maybe not, if she continues with matches like those she had this week — when she moved like the younger version of herself and backed up her scrambling with body blows.
One of the pleasures of any tennis Grand Slam is the opportunity to see the full range of tennis stars. They are everywhere in Flushing Meadows now — with their gusting strokes and variety of techniques and personalities. Look over there, it’s Gauff, or the top-seeded female player, Iga Swiatek, swatting laser forehands! The scene here is a slice of tennis heaven — combustible, uber-talented Nick Kyrgios on one court, Nadal on another.
But right now, all the other players seem to be warm-up acts. Serena is the big show, the main attraction, as she should be.
You can follow Kurt on Twitter at @kurtstreeter.
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Matthew Cullen, Natasha Frost, Lauren Hard, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at
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