There is already a buzz in the air on the eve of this year’s U.S. Open, which begins Monday in Flushing, N.Y. One topic above all seems to be on everyone’s lips: Can Serena Williams do it? Can she win the calendar-year Grand Slam, the Holy Grail of professional tennis?
The 33-year-old Serena will have to win seven consecutive matches over the course of two weeks, and, with each match, the pressure will grow, possibly making this year’s U.S. Open one for the history books.
1 Serena’s legacy Already considered by many to be the greatest player ever in the women’s game, Serena Williams is also making a case that she is the greatest female athlete of all time, topping a list that would include Wilma Rudolph, Babe Didrikson-Zaharias, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Lisa Leslie and Annika Sorenstam.
Williams is attempting to win a 22nd Grand Slam singles title, tying her with Steffi Graf for second all time, two behind Margaret Court. But what is truly historic is Serena’s pursuit of the calendar-year Grand Slam. She is trying to become the first player, man or woman, since Graf in 1988 to win all four major tennis titles — the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — in the same year.
It’s an achievement that has eluded many of the sport’s greatest players — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and many others.
Besides Graf, only two other women have accomplished the feat: Maureen Connolly in 1953 and Court in 1970, when few players regularly traveled to Australia for the year’s first major. The only men to have achieved a calendar-year Grand Slam are Don Budge in 1938 and Rod Laver, who did it twice, first in 1962 and again in 1969.
And Serena is doing it against the next generation, long after many of her rivals, such as Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, have retired. And Serena is showing no sign of slowing down.
“To me she’s the greatest female player that ever played,” said John McEnroe during a recent ESPN conference call with his brother Patrick. “She’s better in every way now. She’s more prepared now. She’s shown that when she’s feeling some pressure and not playing her best, she still figures out a way to win. … If she brings her A game, she’s going to win this for sure.”
2 The “Real” Grand Slam Serena has already achieved a “Serena Slam” as the current title holder of the most recent four majors, going back to last year’s Open. It’s her second “Serena Slam” — she also won four straight majors in 2002-03. However, a calendar-year Grand Slam requires a player be versatile and dominant for an extended period. They must begin the year at the top of their game at Australian Open. Four months later, they have to do it again on a surface vastly different — the gritty, red clay of the French Open. Then the player must quickly switch to the slippery-fast grass courts of Wimbledon, and do it in a matter of weeks. Serena has done that. Now she arrives in New York City when the pressure is at its greatest. The crush of media is like nowhere else. She faces determined opponents, and most of all, this chance of a lifetime is fleeting. “I do think the biggest difference for the calendar Slam [vs. four straight] is the pressure,” Patrick McEnroe said. “I don’t think you can underestimate that, the pressure that the player is under. ... [Winning four Grand Slams] is impressive, but not quite [the same] because of the pressure factor of what’s building toward the U.S. Open. There’s no doubt that Serena’s feeling that. And there’s also no doubt in my mind that she can certainly handle it.”
3 For the ages “Serena’s a far more complete player now than she was at 26,” Patrick McEnroe said. “She plays the percentages better. She’s more prepared…She’s done everything possible in the last five, six years to win as many majors as possible.” Serena, however, is not the only top player in contention for a U.S. Open title. Roger Federer, at 34, is attempting to win his 18th career Grand Slam singles title, and sixth at the U.S. Open. Plus, he’s coming off an impressive victory over top-ranked Novak Djokovic last week in Cincinnati. Federer is continuing to change his game to stay at the top of the game. He is aggressively chipping and charging, coming to the net to pressure his opponents, and serving with power and precision. “I think [having players in their 30s at the top of their game] is amazing, it’s great for the game,” Patrick McEnroe said. “[Players today] have more people around them. They’ve got more resources. They’ve got more trainers, etc. How awesome is it to watch Federer at 34, I mean, playing the kind of tennis he played at Cincinnati?” John McEnroe said Federer’s attitude is key: “You’re talking about a situation where Roger absolutely loves to play. He loves to be out there. He does his homework, his training. ... The knowledge they have now about training and recovery, what to eat, the right time to get a massage, everything is analyzed to the nth degree. That’s allowed players to peak at a late age and appreciate the game more, allow them to sort of realize how lucky they are to be in this position. That’s helped the sport in that way.”
4 Is the next Serena already playing? It’s doubtful anyone will soon match Serena, but the U.S. Open has had a habit of showcasing young talent. Last year, 15-year-old Cici Bellis of California created a buzz with a first-round upset of No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova, who was ranked No. 10. A year earlier, 17-year-old Victoria Duval upset defending champion Samantha Stosur. And there was 17-year-old Melanie Oudin, who became the darling of the Open with her run to the quarterfinals in 2009, complete with victories over No. 4-ranked Elena Dementieva, as well as Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova, before falling to Caroline Wozniacki. But none of those three have been able to recapture the magic on the singles court, although Oudin did win the 2011 U.S. Open mixed doubles title with Jack Sock. Who could be this year’s surprise? “It’s pretty rare that someone makes a deep run all the way to the end because it’s so physical and there’s so much pressure,” Patrick McEnroe said. “You look for some young guys on the men’s side like [18-year-olds] Borna Coric [of Serbia] and [Alexander] Zverev [of Germany]. [American Frances] Tiafoe  qualified for Winston-Salem, and won in the first round, but a ‘Cinderella’ to me is making it to the third or fourth round, and I don’t think anyone on the men’s side can go past that. … On the women’s side, there’s a chance somebody young could make that kind of run, but even that’s becoming more difficult.” Among the American women poised to challenge late into the tournament are Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens.
5 Can Kyrgios keep his cool? Not all topics at this year’s U.S. Open are historic or even positive. Much of the talk in tennis circles in recent weeks has dealt with talented but troubled Australian Nick Kyrgios. He was picked up on a courtside mic at the Rogers Cup making offensive comments to Stan Wawrinka about his girlfriend and fellow Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis. Kyrgios was fined and placed on probation by the ATP with a threat of suspension if his problems continue. However, Kyrgios’ biggest punishment could be dished out by his fellow pros, and that could make the biggest impact on the 20-year-old’s future. “He’s having such issues right now,” John McEnroe said. “The pressure’s getting to him. As a 20-year-old kid, I did my share of dumb things, inappropriate things at times. The good part is I had people that I looked at. [Jimmy] Connors did some crazy things, too, but he was a hell of a competitor, and he made me go out there and give more effort. I think [Kyrgios] would be well-served to look at the guys like Nadal and Federer, the guys that go out there, tremendous effort players. These guys are so professional now that he can’t afford to waste as much energy as he’s wasting with these sort of off-court comments that he’s making that just cause more problems for him.” Patrick McEnroe agreed: “He’s got a flair. He likes to be on the big stage, all those things. He could be a great player. But the bottom line is, and I’ve been saying this about him for a while ... if he doesn’t become more professional in how he prepares himself, there’s no chance it’s going to happen. … He could be incredible for tennis.”
U.S. Open on TV
Monday through Sept. 13, Billie Jean King Tennis Center, Flushing, N.Y.
TV: The ESPN networks will provide exclusive live coverage of the Open for the first time, beginning at 10 a.m. with live streaming on ESPN3. Television coverage will begin at noon on ESPN, switching to ESPN2 for prime-time coverage at 5 p.m.