Whether or not it ends up being the last tournament of a long, illustrious and transcendent career – in professional tennis, perhaps more than in any other sport, farewells can be just a see you later – the two-week appointment that starts on Monday in the hard courts of Flushing Meadows and closes the Grand Slams calendar in 2022 will orbit entirely around Williams.

At least while she’s still running.

It’s only fitting, since for most of the past two decades, with the US Open in particular, much has revolved around Williams, who turns 41 next month.

The reasons are many. That is her peculiar talent with the racket and her indomitable competitive spirit for being the best that led her to win 23 individual Grand Slam crowns, number one in the ranking and Olympic gold medals, as well as that charisma that allowed her to be a celebrity. and a sports superstar.

“She revolutionized tennis in my opinion,” said Chris Evert, a 18-time major champion in the 1970s and 1980s. “She revolutionized power in tennis. And she I feel like she inspired black women, because we have more black women playing tennis. And that has changed how women compete because it’s okay for her to be fierce and fiery and expressive on the court, and still be a woman.”

The ways in which Williams — and her older sister Venus, the seven-time major champion and Serena’s partner to 14 other major doubles titles — have disrupted tennis are diverse, and go beyond their speedy serves and powerful returns.

They made the rest emulate them or see how to counter them.

“They had something inside of them,” said Rick Mauci, the tennis coach who worked with the sisters in the early 1990s, starting before they reached their teens. “When we competed or did competitive exercises, I was able to see something that I had never seen before. They were struggling so hard to catch a ball that they almost tripped over each other. It is true that you have to put desire; that doesn’t mean you’ll be a world champion. But it was another level.”

Williams has said that she does not know how to define her legacy, but it can be felt in players who were inspired by her, such as Coco Gauff, or in modifications to the regulations obviously caused, or to a certain extent, by episodes in which she was involved.

Case in point: The American Tennis Association’s decision to allow coaches to give guidance at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time is tied to the chaotic 2018 US Open final, in which Williams was stripped of a game after being warned for taking instructions from her then coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, during the loss to Naomi Osaka.

Another example: The proliferation of electronic review, to the extent that pinstripe judges have disappeared from US Open matches, can be traced back to a 2014 quarterfinal matchup at Flushing Meadows, in which several decisions hurt Williams by lose to Jennifer Capriati.

At the US Open alone, Williams had other incidents with the judges (the 2009 semi-final foot foul against Kim Clijsters), sported innovative outfits (a full leotard in 2002; knee-high boots two years later). ) and had numerous victories dating back to 1999, when she was just 17 years old and defeated Martina Hingis to win her first Grand Slam crown.

So Arthur Ashe Stadium will be the ideal setting for a farewell despite the fact that Williams did not explicitly state that she will stop competing after the US Open. She merely indicated in a column in Vogue magazine that she was headed for a transition, moving away from tennis to focus on having a second child or pursuing her own business.

Every time she hits the runway in New York she will be regarded as possibly the last moment.

She will start with a first-round match against Danka Kovinic, a 27-year-old Montenegrin who is currently 80th in the ranking and who has never drawn the third round in the big events.

It will be just the fifth singles match for Williams in the last 12 months, as the American walked away from the tour after being injured in the first round at Wimbledon last year. She reappeared on the same stage this year and succumbed in the first round.

Back after that long hiatus, Williams is 1-3, with straight-set losses to Belinda Bencic — the Tokyo Olympics champion — and Emma Raducanu — the 2021 US Open champion — in the last two outings of she.

There was a time — not too long ago — that Williams was considered the favorite in every match and in every tournament, especially in the four biggest tennis tournaments.

“I would recommend: Don’t underestimate her,” said ESPN analyst Evert. “But the problem is the painting. The problem is that they are all doing well… There are many good players who, first, are not intimidated by her; second, they know she’s not at her best right now; and third, they want to beat him”.

Two days before her loss to Bencic in Toronto, and the day before revealing her thoughts on retirement (a word she hates), Williams opened up at a news conference: “I can’t do this forever.”

That’s true. Nobody expects this to be the last time the world hears from her, even though she has very few games left to play.

“Ultimately, tennis has been the main stage for her,” said Rick Macci, her longtime coach. “But I think her best moment is yet to come.”

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