By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
Time can be shaped and perceived in so many ways, many of them unkind and cruel, others more polite and yet not so dissimilar. To my mind, in the continuum of its flow, time can be best described as a ‘fickle friend’. In the present moment, there’s no one better to cite as an elaboration of this analogy than Serena Williams.
The 40-year-old lost in the third round of the U.S. Open on Friday night before a packed audience in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Ever since Williams had announced her euphemistic retirement – terming it “evolving away from tennis” – before the start of the North American swing that would culminate at Flushing Meadows, this moment had been both anticipated and dreaded.
Early-round losses in Toronto and Cincinnati put the tennis world on tenterhooks regarding how far the six-time US Open champion would go in her swansong year. An easy win against Danka Kovinic in the first round did dull the dread of what was to come, just as the nerve-wracking three-setter against World No. 2 Anett Kontaveit upped the anxiety level for her third-round match against Ajla Tomljanovic.
The match’s meandering route through an exchange of breaks didn’t bode well for onlookers hoping for Williams’ run to continue in the draw. But when she broke the Australian and served for the first set, it seemed that the worries had been for nothing. Except that it didn’t turn out that way.
time, in its grandiose and unexpected manner, decided to pay a visit to the proceedings and give about a reminder that it wasn’t the same entity who had visited Williams’ career before.
Every shot Williams shanked to lose her serve in the first set; every time her serve failed to resuscitate her as she tried in vain to serve out the second; and every time she struggled to dig deep within her as her game fell apart in the decider, it felt as though time was offering a practical demonstration of how all that that had been easy for her at one point in time, wasn’t so easy now. Notably, it was also the longest time Serena spent on court in a U.S. Open match since her debut there in 1998 – at three hours and five minutes.
In a way, this statistic is testimony to the head start Serena gained in her battle against time, across nearly three decades of professional tennis-playing. This is how she kept time at bay, despite the injuries she suffered, the defeats she endured, and the life-threatening incidents she battled, even while giving birth to her daughter, Olympia, in 2017.
The 23 Grand Slam tournaments she won, which include completing the non-calendar Slam or the “Serena Slam” twice – in 2002-03 and in 2014-15 – amply support this attribute of domination Williams had: not only over her rivals but also against time itself.
And yet, in these last few years, even as Williams made a convincing return that included reaching three major finals, two at the U.S. Open itself, time looked like it had finally erased Williams’ advantage over it. Her loss in each of these three finals, including one where she became the center of controversy, showed not only that she was unable to maintain previously dominant standards, but also that her younger opponents had found ways to dictate to her.
Not that she didn’t try, of course, but while she tried to shore up her resources against external rivals, it remains that internally, she wasn’t able to defend against her own aging body. Somewhere, as she tried to move through and around these two forces, time managed to race ahead of her.
Williams’ Vogue article, then, also comes across as her way of reciprocation that she has caught on to time’s advances on her days as a tennis professional. Her words are the literary equivalent of clapping her racquet in appreciation of her opponent hitting a good shot.
This acknowledgement – of and for time – on Serena Williams’ part extends only to the professional realm. Beyond the tour and the Slams, as she put it in her press conference in Queens, she still has a lot to do, and a lot to show.
To herself, the world, and to time itself.