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Column: Serena Williams is different now and it’ll take some getting used to

Serena Williams failed for the fourth time to try to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam tournament titles.
Serena Williams failed for the fourth time to try to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam tournament titles.
(Charles Krupa / Associated Press)

Watching Serena Williams get pushed around. Be outmaneuvered. Fight back tears as her serve — the most reliable and dangerous of all of her weapons — abandons her in a major final again.

When Williams lost to Angelique Kerber in the 2018 Wimbledon final she was broken four times. Later Naomi Osaka broke her four times in the U.S. Open final. Simona Halep also broke Williams’ serve four times in this year’s Wimbledon final. Bianca Andreescu did it six times Saturday. For context, Williams was broken a total of 10 times — not losing a single set — en route to winning the 2017 Australian Open.

She has yet to win a set in a major final since.

The fact one of the greatest athletes of all time has made it to the finals in four of the past seven majors is an indicator that she’s far from done. The fight is clearly still there, but the eyeball test does not offer much solace, does it?

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At the peak of her powers Williams was a goddess.

Today, as was the case in the previous finals, she appeared to be mortal. She was always the hunted, but now she looks more capable of being wounded. Perhaps we’re at the phase of her career in which she might need things to go her way. Perhaps a top player in her side of the draw gets upset or simply has a bad day.

Andreescu came into New York red hot and scorched whatever remnants of intimidation factor Williams may have had left. For the better part of 20 years, it felt as if opponents needed luck to beat her. Now there is a clear game plan.

A victory on Sunday over Daniil Medvedev would leave Rafael Nadal one short of Roger Federer’s no longer remote record of 20 Grand Slam titles.

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Gone are the days Williams, now 37, could enter a major not at her fittest, play her way into shape, and two weeks later walk away victorious. Now players are absorbing the power that used to knock opponents off the court and without her once-reliable serve to get her out of trouble, trophies have been hard to come by.

It’s not easy watching history being made for Japan and Canada on American soil, seeing Williams hold the smaller plaque, enduring another sunset with Margaret Court’s name on top of the all-time major wins list.

Even when Williams was down 3-6, 1-5 I thought, “here she comes,” for old times sake.

And when the score was 5-5 in the second set, I wondered where this victory would place on the all-time comeback lists. Over the course of two decades her legend was built on flipping a switch when things got tense. Now opponents are making her hit one more ball than we’re used to seeing, nervousness has acquired real estate once owned by dominance and it resides a lot closer to the surface than we’re accustomed.

The match opened with a Williams ace. A few points later she was broken and it never really felt as if she was able to piece herself together afterward. At least not back to the player, the athlete, the woman we all once knew.

Serena Williams is different now.

In 1970, Margaret Court said that South Africa’s apartheid system enabled the country to have a better handle on the “racial situation” than any other country.

And it hasn’t been easy to accept.

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That’s not to suggest she won’t win another major or two. She’s not the Tiger Woods of tennis, she’s not Patrick Ewing in a SuperSonics uniform, she is not barely holding on.

But she is reminding us of something that is often times overlooked when an athlete has been dominant as she has for as long as she has:
It was never easy. She just made it look as if it was.

The way Mike Tyson made knockouts look routine, the way Clayton Kershaw made strikeouts look routine, the way every all-time great took the most strenuous elements of their sport and presented them in a way that led the naïve to believe it wasn’t that hard in the first place. But it was never easy for Tyson or Woods or Kershaw.

It was never easy for Serena Williams.

This latest defeat wasn’t easy to watch but it is not a sign that No. 24 is out of her grasp. No, it was another not-so-gentle reminder that winning the first 23 was hard as hell.


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