Serena, so close and yet so far away

© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

NEW YORK — It’s not accurate to say Serena Williams failed again, unable for a fourth straight time to win that ultimate tournament, the one that ties her for the Grand Slam record.

She didn’t fail, not the way she battled. She simply lost — to a better player.

This is the way it is in sports. An athlete rises to the top, which means she’s the best, which Williams was. Eventually, inevitably, she will decline, and others will ascend. Now that has happened in women’s tennis.

There was Naomi Osaka, 20, a year ago at the U.S. Open, then Simona Halep, 26, at this year’s Wimbledon, then Sunday, 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu, who whipped Serena, and good, 6-3, 7-5, Saturday in the final of yet another U.S. Open.

Adding the defeat by Angelique Kerber in the 2018 Wimbledon final means it is four straight times Williams has been unable to get the victory that would tie her with Margaret Court for the women’s record of 24 Grand Slams.

What appeared a certainty after she won the 2017 Australian Open, that she would break the mark or at least equal it, now seems more and more an improbability.

Serena is 38, and although she rallied in that final set, after trailing, 5-1; although she had maybe 95 percent of the 27,000 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium cheering for her — “It was so loud I could barely hear myself think,” said Andreescu; although she had been in so many title matches where her opponent was in her first, Andreescu was the better player.

“I wish I could have played more like Serena,” said Williams.

She meant like Serena of only three years ago, before she had a baby, before she had numerous injuries, before she had the disadvantage of growing older.

But Andreescu, serving better than Williams, one of the game’s great servers, quicker to the ball, hitting brilliant forehands, wouldn’t let Williams play like she wanted.

“I didn’t play my best today.” Serena said. “I wish I could have played better. I love Bianca. She’s a great girl. But this was the worst match I played the whole tournament.”

Andreescu had more than a little to do with that, although as others throughout their fading careers contend, they didn’t come up to expectations.

“I was thinking, OK, Serena,” Williams said, “you didn’t miss a serve. You lost serve maybe twice in the whole tournament, and you didn’t hit a first serve in today. That was obviously on my mind. Bianca played well. I think her returns make me play better.”

Williams played her best when trailing, 5-1, in the second set, taking four straight games, and Andreescu knew of Serena’s reputation and history. But Williams was too far back to recover.

“It definitely wasn’t easy when she started coming back,” admitted Andreescu. “I mean it was expected. She’s a champion. That’s what champions do.”

Williams still is capable, still is successful, but she’s no longer the lady she once was. And Andreescu and Halep and Osaka are not the ladies they were either. They have grown and improved.

Brad Gilbert, the guy from Marin who once ranked as high as fourth in the world and now comments on tennis for ESPN (and on every other sport, especially the Raiders, to anyone in his company), predicted early on in this Open that Andreescu would be the champion.

And so she is, the first Canadian in tennis, man or woman, to be a Grand Slam winner. A year ago, beset by physical troubles — she was out three months because of a shoulder injury — Andreescu didn’t even qualify for the Open.

Now 12 months later she virtually owns the tournament, getting messages from Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, the Toronto Blue Jays, and of course the Toronto Raptors, who only four months ago won the NBA Championship with the slogan, “We the north.”

Andreescu? She the North. And in tennis, she’s the present and future.

“All of this is super frustrating,” said Williams. I’m like so close, so close, yet so far away.”

And as the years grow, so will the distance.