NEW YORK — History. Such a small word with large connotations. A word that Serena Williams cannot escape — until she becomes historic. Until she wins that 24th Grand Slam.
Which may be Saturday night here in New York, at the U.S. Open.
Or it may be never.
Serena is nearly 38. Age, we’re told, is only a number. But in life or sports, numbers are unavoidable. The one that confronts Willams is 24, the record for Grand Slam tournament victories by a woman.
A record held by Margaret Court, whose 24th victory came in the 1973 U.S. Open, then held at neighboring Forest Hills;
A record that Williams, with 23 from 1999 through 2017, has reached for and missed three times, losing in the final to Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon in 2018, in the final to Naomi Osaka at the U.S. Open in 2018 and two months ago in the final to Simona Halep at Wimbledon.
This time, Williams will play a 19-year-old of Romanian descent born in Canada, Bianca Andreescu, who although in the lower echelons of the sport a year ago has risen as rapidly as Serena did some 20 years ago.
Williams’ last Slam win was over her older sister, Venus, in the 2017 Australian Open, after which it was disclosed she was pregnant.
Her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, was born two years ago. Since then Serena has worked to get back in shape, worked to overcome injuries and, perhaps most difficult of all, worked to become a mother.
“When you play for a record like this one,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams' coach of the last seven years, “there is a lot of emotion ... there is even more. It’s called pressure. And I think Serena had to experience pressure in her life.
“But you have to realize that to be able to deal with pressure, you need to feel strong. If you feel weak or not as strong as you wish you would, it’s more difficult to beat the pressure.”
There were knee problems, other ailments, a lack of preparation. But Williams herself, after defeating Elina Svitolina in their semifinal, said she is prepared, emotionally as well as physically. The way she swept around the court kept Svitolina off balance.
“I think it’s a totally different situation now,” Mouratoglou said of Williams' play this Open, “because she can move, if she needs to play the rally. We have seen that a few times during the tournament. So there is no panic if she misses a bit more than usual. No problem. There are other options of play.
“You cannot even give her a plan B when she cannot make the plan B. So I feel so much more confident now because she knows she’s ready.”
So does Andreescu, who as the victories grew in this Open — over the former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, over Taylor Townsend, who had upset Halep, then in the semifinal over Belinda Bencic — showed she belongs among the big girls.
Mouratoglou, who has a tennis school in France, and whom Serena hired after she lost early in the 2012 French Open, saw something in Andreescu and Daniil Medvedev, and predicted both would have great tournaments. Each is in the finals for the first time.
Andreescu must have great self-belief, but there’s not a hint of cockiness. On the contrary, she acts awed, in post-match interviews asking if this real. Serena appears to be less an opponent than an icon, even though Andreescu defeated a slightly damaged Williams at the Rogers Cup in Toronto less than a month ago, Serena forced to retired because of back spasms.
It was the teenager comforting the veteran, Andreescu sitting next to a sobbing Williams and, in a video seen maybe too many times as far as Serena is concerned, putting an arm around her shoulder and telling her she knew where the spasms were.
“I know everything about you,” Andreescu said to Williams.
Not everything. She doesn’t know if Serena will get that elusive 24th major and do it with a win over Andreescu.