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Serena Williams Is In The U.S. Open Tennis Finals Once Again

By Alix Ramsay

Here we go again. Serena is in the final. She is within touching distance of her 24th grand slam title, she is two sets away from not just rewriting history but tearing up the record books and making the historians start again.

In truth, she has already done that. The only difference between what we already know about Serena and what the bald facts state is a matter of numbers. Sure, Margaret Court won 24 major trophies but she didn’t have to fight her way past Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo, Venus Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Petra Kvitova, Angie Kerber, Naomi Osaka, through five generations of greats, to get to those 24 trophies. And that is probably why Serena feels justified in claiming that she doesn’t think about numbers.

Oh, but she does.

Once she had finished marmalising Elina Svitolina on Thursday night (a 6-3, 6-1 clumping that took a couple of games to get going and then accelerated towards the finish line with little drama), she was all giggly and gushing as she spoke to Rennae Stubbs on court. Oooh, what a pleasant surprise: she had equalled Chris Evert’s record of 101 US Open match wins. That was lovely. But, no, she didn’t think about numbers; she just turned up to play.

But Stubbs did not dare to mention the “T-word”, the “Twenty-four” word. Not on court. Not in front of a packed house. It might not have ended well.

Back in the relative sanctuary of the press conference room, the world’s inky fingered scribes did mention it. And Serena sidestepped it with remarkably nimble footwork.

“I definitely would still be playing if I had already passed [Margaret Court’s record],” she said. “I’ve had so many chances to pass it and to have a lot more, but it’s cool because I’m playing in an era with so many — five eras with so many amazing players.

“If you look at the span of the career, the players I’ve played, it’s amazing that I was able to get this many.”

She said this with that smile that we have come to know, the one that says: watch it, you are skating on thin ice. Best move on and away from danger. Trust me.

Of all the grand slam events, the US Open is the one that sets Serena’s nerves jangling the loudest. Her home slam, her home turf, in front of her own people – who wouldn’t be nervous in that environment? You only have to look at the generations of Brits at Wimbledon, French at Roland Garros and Aussies at Melbourne Park to see what home pressure can do to a top player. But with Serena, it always seems different.

Her domination of the women’s game has been as impressive as it has been long-lived. When she was young, the established champions feared her; now that she is the established living legend, everyone fears her. Motherhood has not mellowed her even if the business of pregnancy and childbirth, with all the surgical complications that went with it, has limited her physically. But still her opponents see her across the net and wish dearly that they were somewhere else.

And then she sets foot in the Arthur Ashe Stadium on finals day and it is her pulse rate that goes through the roof and her palms that get all sweaty.

“There’s so many different emotions in finals,” she said. “It just brings out so many highs and lows, nerves and expectations. It’s a lot.”

Last year, in a fraught final, it brought out the worst in her. Not “worst” in terms of her being a flat-track bully or the sort of person who bites kittens but “worst” in the sense of forgetting what it is that makes a champion. While she blew a gasket, arguing with the umpire and never letting go of the sense of unfairness, Naomi Osaka quietly got on the business of winning. That was supposed to be Serena’s job but, instead, she unravelled and Osaka ran off with the trophy.

With so many finals behind her, it is not a lack of experience that is her undoing – she has won finals and lost finals; she knows how it all works – it is just the annoying problem of being a living legend and a human being at the same time. She has weaknesses (not many, to be fair) and the damned things keep showing up at the most inappropriate of moments.

“There’s a lot of things that I’ve learned in the past, but I just have to go out there, above all, most of all, just stay relaxed,” she said.

But it is so much easier said than done. No matter who she plays on Saturday – and it will be Bianca Andreescu – it will all come down to Serena: if she can play the final as if it were any other match, Margaret Court’s record will not see the weekend out. But if she looks up and sees history staring her in the face, we could be in for a long afternoon.

Here we go again.

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