Sports

The Void Serena Williams Left in Tennis Doesn’t Need to Be Filled

Serena Williams is gone from the game; at least, we think so. Given the sharp, competitive way she played at the U.S. Open last week, maybe, just maybe, she’ll end up coming back for an encore.

Let’s take her at her word, despite the malaise that settled on the grounds at Flushing Meadows in the days following her defeat to Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia. Their three-hour match Friday night featured some of the most thrilling tennis played at this tournament in years.

Now what? That was the question fans were asking over the Labor Day weekend, many of whom had bought their tickets just before the tournament began, gambling that Williams would keep playing and that they could watch her last great run. With her gone, not even the players who are left in the tournament have a firm grasp of who will take her place in women’s tennis.

“I don’t know,” said Jessica Pegula last week, echoing a typical locker room sentiment. Pegula, an American barely known outside of tennis even though she is currently ranked No. 8, made note of the remarkable explosion of talent on the women’s tour, which features its deepest-ever bench, but lamented that nobody has been up for filling the Serena void.

“It’s open for someone to step up,” she said. “That’s why you look at someone like Serena, dominant over several eras, and it’s pretty crazy.”

Of course, tennis, like most sports, thrives on big names. On the women’s side, in the modern era of professionalization, the racket passed from Billie Jean King to Chris Evert to Martina Navratilova to Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Then it was Venus Williams’s turn, and finally, Serena, who not only pushed the game in popularity and reach, she helped changed the way the game was played.

“It’s hard to picture tennis without her,” Pegula added, dolefully.

Steffi Graf with the U.S. Open trophy in 1988 the year she won the Grand Slam.Credit…Peter Morgan/Associated Press

Does women’s tennis need such a dominating figure to be interesting?

Maybe it’s a matter of perspective. Rivalries and dynasties are great things. Many fans seem content to follow a small handful players or, in other sports, teams. The few players who win big and win consistently — like Williams and Novak Djokovic — are the ones whose stories take up most of the oxygen.

But is there another more satisfying way of looking at sports?

Is the N.B.A. at its best when the Golden State Warriors are in the finals, year after year, and winning the league title, in four out of eight seasons?

Did we only care about the N.F.L. when the New England Patriots were bullying everyone in sight?

Simone Biles had her well-documented struggles at the Tokyo Olympics, but how cool was it to watch Sunisa Lee emerge from relative obscurity and win gold in the all-around event?

Serena Williams at the U.S. Open

The U.S. Open was very likely the tennis star’s last professional tournament after a long career of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.

  • Glorious Goodbye: Even as Serena Williams faced career point, she put on a gutsy display of the power and resilience that have kept fans cheering for nearly 30 years.
  • The Magic Ends: Zoom into this composite photo to see details of Williams’s final moment on Ashe Stadium at this U.S. Open.
  • Her Fans: We asked readers to share their memories of watching Williams play and the emotions that she stirred. There was no shortage of submissions.
  • Sisterhood on the Court: Since Williams and her sister Venus burst onto the tennis scene in the 1990s, their legacies have been tied to each other’s.

In men’s tennis, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Djokovic are pure genius. Bless the Big Three. But after reigning over the game for nearly two decades, each one of this trio feels past his due date.

Despite Monday’s stunning loss to Frances Tiafoe, Nadal may play for at least another year. Djokovic looks like he has no plans to slow down until he is 70. Federer says he will give it one last hurrah when he can return from yet another knee injury.

All to the good, unless, like me, you want some spice and variety and you like not knowing with near 100 percent certainty who is going to dominate every big tournament.

Over the last several days, I spent time in Manhattan, randomly asking strangers what they knew about Iga Swiatek, the top women’s seed at the U.S. Open. The standard response was a quizzical, dumbfounded look. “Who?”

Swiatek, a 21-year-old from Poland, won her second French Open in June. She also won 37 straight matches this year, the longest such streak in the 21st century.

She has a compelling, all-court game. She is intelligent, contemplative, and engaging.

But let’s face it, outside of tennis fans, in America, arguably the most critical market in tennis because of its size and spending power, Swiatek isn’t well known. She does not seem poised to fill the void left by Serena Williams. But that’s fine. No player will. The game, with its drama, athleticism and skill, should be able to attract fans.

Iga Swiatek is the top seed at the U.S. Open. Will she be the next player to dominate tennis?Credit…Mike Segar/Reuters

It’s been interesting to watch the matches at Flushing this week, not only on the big courts but on the outskirts of this glammed-up tennis mecca — which, unlike, say, lush and intimate Wimbledon, has the look and feel of public tennis courts on steroids, with a looming football stadium stuck in the middle.

Serena’s influence is everywhere. Remember how she spoke of “evolving” away from tennis? What a perfect word, because that is what she has done for tennis. She’s been the prime force in its evolution.

You can see her fingerprints in every women’s match. The powerful, percussive groundstrokes hit from every corner. The biting serves. The aggressive, swinging volleys. The strength and speed. Virtually every player looks like they could be competing in the Olympic Heptathlon.

Women’s tennis has never contained this much depth. Yes, you can watch the young and talented Coco Gauff, 18, ranked 12th, now into her first U.S. Open quarterfinals on Tuesday, and make the obvious comparison to a young Serena Williams because of their race — and because Gauff has steadily pointed to Serena and Venus for laying down the path for her tennis journey.

It helps that Gauff also has the same sort of ambitious grit. As she came from behind in each set of her Sunday match against China’s Zhang Shuai, Gauff channeled Serena’s moxie, giving a Dikembe Mutombo finger wag, pumping her fists, flying from corner to corner to hit groundstrokes that echoed with a boom across Arthur Ashe Stadium.

But throughout this tournament the grounds have been filled with competitors like the 86th ranked player in the world, Ukraine’s Dayana Yastremska — who, like so many other, credits Serena Williams for sparking her love for tennis as a girl. The shots that fly off Yastremska’s racket, no surprise, look like they’re ripping out of a cannon.

Serena isn’t truly gone from the sport. She left a lot behind and remains part of tennis in a profound way. Her influence is all over the grounds.

But that the void she left can’t be filled and doesn’t need to be.

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