September 6, 2020
Whisper it softly, but Serena Williams really has a very good chance to fulfil her dream this time.
That historic, record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title beckons at Flushing Meadows if she can keep hitting the heights.
Imagine if Serena then became the undisputed greatest of all time by winning Wimbledon 2021 too?
How we would love to see more history made on Centre Court, the spiritual home of tennis.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. She is currently stuck on a magnificent 23 Slams. One behind Margaret Court.
Encouragingly, however, there are signs she could finally add to her extraordinary total in New York.
Until Saturday night, you might not have thought so.
She has been good enough to reach the second week and even Slam finals in recent years.
Yet you always sensed that sooner or later a hungry, younger rival would take her down.
This time it feels a little bit different.
Serena’s second and third sets against Sloane Stephens were simply sensational.
Maybe for the first time since Serena became a mum, we saw her true tennis magnificence in full and glorious flow.
Her movement was superb. Her serve and forehand were fearsome weapons once more.
‘She brings out the best in my fitness,’ Serena admitted.
Make no mistake, Stephens had started brilliantly.
Williams later described what she was up against.
‘In the first set I don’t think she made any errors. I thought: “I don’t want to lose in straight sets. Just get a game.”
‘Just staying in it when she played so well, not getting down, that was impressive.’
But not as impressive as Serena’s thunderous response. That 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 scoreline tells the comeback story neatly.
Yet it cannot convey the beautiful force Serena unleashed once she relaxed.
What a show she put on for her husband Alexis and daughter Olympia. ‘I think she saw her mommy fighting,’ Serena said as she beamed at Olympia.
So how can she go on to win that elusive 24th title?
Well, first she must beat Maria Sakkari, the Greek star who defeated her here a few days ago in the Western and Southern Open.
But Williams had that match in the bag until she lost focus. She can see off Sakkari this time, if she puts her mind to it.
There are still giants lurking, of course. A resurgent Victoria Azarenka and Naomi Osaka, for example.
Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and the unsung Jennifer Brady are equally dangerous. Any one of these stars could win it.
But the key to Serena’s 24th title isn’t in the strengths or weaknesses of others.
The key, as always, lies in Serena herself. Why was she so tight in the first set against Sloane Stephens? Why was she so nervous that she could hardly breathe?
‘Every day having “Serena” on your back is a massive target for the tour, for press, for stress,’ she explained.
Serena is constantly haunted by her own legend. She must strip it away and live in the present.
She must find the form she displayed in sets two and three against Stephens – but from the start.
For the rest of the tournament, she must bring out the big guns and relax early enough to fire them properly.
From set one. Not sets two and three.
Then she might have enough fuel left in the tank to get the job done next weekend.
The quality is there, Serena. It’s time to believe.
Because we want you to put those nerves behind you forever. Then you can be magnificent at Wimbledon 2021 too.