Trenton Jocz is a freelance tennis writer who lives in Seattle and was able to attend (not as a journalist, but as a paying spectator) a Serena Williams match at the 2020 Fed Cup tie between the United States and Latvia in Everett, Washington, this past weekend.
Tennis With An Accent asked Trenton to offer his impressions of Serena, having observed her in person:
By TRENTON JOCZ
Special to Tennis With An Accent
In most scenarios, Sofia Kenin, making her return to home soil just days after becoming a Grand Slam champion at just 21, would be the clear star of the show.
However, those scenarios do not account for the presence of Serena Williams, making a rare Fed Cup appearance as the star for the USA’s tie against Latvia this past weekend in Everett, Washington, which is comfortably north of Seattle, or uncomfortably north of Seattle for those of us who live to the south.
For all the USTA’s faults, it was an intimate (and affordably priced) setup at Angel of the Winds Arena, and the crowd delivered. It met the moment, being complimented by not only the home team for the raucous support, but also Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova for its fairness.
I was only able to go on Friday, which meant watching Kenin-Sevastova, followed by Williams against Alona-for-my-real-friends, Jelena-for-my-fake-friends Ostapenko. With Kenin quickly dispatching Sevastova, the crowd was wired for the main event. What ensued was a strange brew of excitement and tension in a rhythmless match that ultimately went to Serena in a pair of tiebreakers.
Kenin’s victory, despite being a blowout, was a match of contoured rallies with varied paces and spins (a striking impression of watching live was how Kenin’s ball had the best usage of spin to account for both margin and attacking), whereas this felt like being inside a pinball machine.
The crowd desperately wanted Williams to find her groove and pull away, but both times she broke Ostapenko, she quickly failed to consolidate the break. Though she prevailed in both breakers, thanks in part to untimely double faults from the much-improved Ostapenko serve, it remains that margins that thin are dangerous.
This was seen the next day against Sevastova, the first time in Serena’s illustrious career that she’d lost two tiebreaks in one match.
A striking undercurrent of the Ostapenko match was a quartet of points in which an Ostapenko ball ended up near the scoreboard, floating down for an easy putaway, only for Williams to lose three of those four points.
As someone who has watched Williams for many years, I’m accustomed to her footwork costing her a plethora of points from the midcourt. The crowd, however, had its own running dialogue with those points.
The first was surprise, but with an “Oh well, that happens” vibe, followed by another that was more of an “Again?” reaction. The third, which Serena won, had a bracing crowd exhale with resurgent joy and relief, culminating in a final instance in which the nervousness was validated by another squandered putaway.
Judgments made on one match obviously exist in the context of a low sample size, but watching Williams live, the main takeaway was that it didn’t feel inevitable (the woman behind me kept saying “Come on, Serena” at such a low volume that its only purpose could have been for her own reassurance rather than Serena’s).
This is ultimately a compliment on the totality of her career: Competition at this level, especially against a seemingly-resurgent former major champion, isn’t supposed to feel like a given, especially not at 38.
That said, journalist Tumaini Carayol might have put it best:
The difference between Serena's level last year (outside of finals) and this year so far is stark. She is moving poorly, not serving well under pressure and, worst of all, not closing matches. Still early days in 2020, but it is notable. https://t.co/Obg0iwE2L6
— Tumaini Carayol (@tumcarayol) February 9, 2020
Ultimately, though, with an athlete of Serena’s stature, the most important takeaways often transcend the court, and such was the case here. It was definitely noticeable how many more black fans were present in comparison to the other events I’ve attended: the 2016 Davis Cup tie in the Portland area, and the 2017 Match in Africa in Seattle.
While the presence of Coco Gauff on the USA team (to gain experience, but never an option given the loaded depth of the team that proved vital in the deciding doubles) surely was a factor as well, the takeaway was the same: how important these Fed Cup and Davis Cup ties are for growing the game around the world in areas that don’t hold tournaments, and how many of these occasions are lost with the new single-week format that began last fall for the men and this year for the women.
One of the few things everyone involved in tennis can agree on is that the calendar isn’t perfect, but whether it’s adults who grew up watching Williams play for two decades, little kids who just started their own fandom journey with Kenin and Gauff, or tennis junkies like myself getting to see those infamous Ostapenko facial expressions in person, I found myself wondering how many people around the world will lose out on the same opportunity in this new era.