Twenty-four is not inevitable — and neither is Serena Williams.
These are the facts of life, or maybe the cycle of life, as Rafael Nadal put it on Friday. Sports belong to the young — even if perhaps the greatest champion in the history of her sport rages against the dying of the light.
Twenty years after winning her first U.S. Open and first Grand Slam tournament, the 37-year-old Williams was beaten in the women’s Open final Saturday by 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu — the powerful, poised and bold Canadian — in straight sets 6-3, 7-5. A year ago, under tumultuous conditions, Serena was beaten in the final by 20-year-old Naomi Osaka. There is a pattern here, folks.
In neither match did Williams play close to her best tennis. She has not played close to her best tennis in the four Grand Slam finals she has lost since coming within one of Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles with her 2017 victory at the Australian Open before stepping away to have a baby and be a mom.
“I’m not necessarily chasing a record, I’m just trying to win Grand Slams,” an introspective Williams said. “And it’s definitely frustrating, you know?”
Tennis balls are round. They spin, in much the way the Andreescu attacked her decorated opponent from the get-go in breaking Williams in the first game of the match, the final game of the match, and six times overall. Now, with so many talented young women joining the tour, many inspired by the journeys of Serena and Venus Williams — many of whom idolize the sisters who made not only tennis history, but also American history, the tour reflects the natural order.
Williams seemed down and out after being broken three-for-three in the second set, down 1-5 as the unflappable Andreescu served for match. An adoring crowd wasn’t about to quit on Serena. She was not about to quit on herself.
“At [1-5] I was just thinking, ‘Wow, this is terrible. I’ve got to play better. I have to do better,’ ” Williams said. “I just couldn’t go down like that.”
Suddenly, the teen flapped. Williams, making her last stand, played inspired tennis after more than an hour of pedestrian play and roared back to 5-all. But Andreescu, who’d failed to convert a championship point at 5-1, 40-30, stiffened, held and then broke the sport’s standard-bearer to seal her country’s first victory in a major.
“I love Bianca. I think she’s a great girl,” Williams said. “But this was the worst match I played all tournament. It’s hard to know you could do better. I definitely can say that I’m not really happy. But I have to take it one moment at a time.”
The moments of Williams’ dominance over the tour have passed. So, on the other side, have Roger Federer’s. These are great athletes, likely the best who ever played — though Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Nadal, Rod Laver and Novak Djokovic might want to have a word on that. But nothing lasts forever. To everything there is a season and these are the seasons featuring winds of change.
There have been nine different women’s Grand Slam champions over the 11 tournaments played since Williams won in Australia
in 2017. Osaka has won twice and so has Simona Halep. There are Andreescu, Ashleigh Barty, Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko. The days of the dynasty are over.
This defeat, or these past four defeats in finals of majors, the four Williams defeats here since capturing her sixth Open title in 2014 do not impact her legacy, either on or off the court. She is a cultural icon. She is a beacon.
But the reality is that the days of Williams winning majors may be in the past. Maybe. There was a time, you know, when Wayne Gretzky stopped leading the NHL in scoring. He was still the Great One, the greatest of all time, but maybe not the greatest during the final few years of his career — even if he was still capable of great things.
Williams keeps getting to finals even with generations nipping at her heels. But she isn’t winning them. No matter her greatness, no matter her sports and cultural immortality, time marches on.
That is inevitable.