Analysis: Serena Williams is no longer an unstoppable force, but her vulnerability makes her more appealing

NEW YORK — While she has been busy collecting 23 Grand Slam titles, 838 career victories and $93 million in prize money over these last four decades, Serena Williams has spent big swaths of time plowing through the world of women’s tennis like a tractor in the field. That she is the greatest player ever can’t be disputed by anyone who has been paying attention. Whether she claims major title No. 24 at the end of next week to tie her with Margaret Court, know that Court, as dominant as she was in her time, could not carry Williams’ racket bag.

That is not American hubris. It’s a fact. Tennis has never seen a force like Williams, who won her first round of the 2020 U.S. Open on Tuesday with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Kristie Ahn. The performance was by no means vintage Williams, even though she had 13 aces and a bundle of service winners. She looked off-balance and tentative at times, especially from the back court.

Ahn, who is a very capable player but still the 96th-ranked woman in the world, actually pushed her around now and again, and in some ways it was much more interesting to watch than all those times Williams was in tractor mode.

You came away appreciating that in a strange way being vulnerable, even a little, is very becoming to the soon-to-be-39 Williams.

How many times have we watched her take a court in a major and seen an opponent all but cowering across the net, frozen almost to the point of competitive paralysis?  Williams, of course, cultivated that aura. She wanted to instill that fear, and why not? You do what works.

As brilliant a champion as she is, Williams doesn’t quite have that same swagger. She won her last Grand Slam before her daughter Olympia, who turned three Tuesday, was born. She has been to four Grand Slam finals the last two years, and not only lost all four, she lost them without winning a set.

She is undeniably great. She is also beatable.

Serena Williams on holding the U.S. Open amid a pandemic: "I think what's most important about this event taking place is just the spirit." (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports)

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Motherhood hasn’t diminished her will to win, but it’s sanded down some of her roughest edges, and that makes her more appealing than ever. She still wants to power-blast her way through tournaments, but seems less inclined to be a bully. She is able to talk about her doubts, her insecurities. You can see that she wants to win this 24th major so badly that she puts excruciating pressure on herself, especially in the late stages of tournaments. All that does is make her human. She wants something so much, trying so hard, she is making it harder to get there. Who of us hasn't been there?

Time was that Williams wasn’t just dismissive in her post-match news conferences, she was hostile. She loathed the process and said so. No doubt it’s difficult to come into a room after a brutal defeat and have to explain it to people who really have no idea what the experience is like. Still, other people do it. Very rarely could Williams find it in her to give an opponent any credit if she lost. It was her fault, not anything the opponent did. When Justine Henin knocked her out of the 2007 Open, the interview began with someone asking her if she could explain what went wrong.

“No, I can’t. I’m sorry. Any more questions?”

It went downhill from there.

Williams suffered a pulmonary embolism while giving birth to Olympia. She had big doubts for a long time whether the U.S. Open, or any other major event, would come back, and even bigger doubts about whether she’d show up if it did. Here she is, happy to be back, even without fans in this oddest of sporting spectacles.

“I think what's most important about this event taking place is just the spirit,” Williams said. “Sport has been gone for so long, particularly tennis. We missed two Grand Slams. The morale can be really low in the world with everything that's going on. Sometimes you just want to take your mind off. People have been doing that for generations through sport.

"That's one of the reasons I was so supportive of the U.S. Open. I felt like it was such a good time to get back out there for athletes and for fans to kind of just disconnect and be a fan, and for athletes to do what they do best.”

She praised Ahn’s clever, artfully diverse game, how hard she pushed her. She joked about the only match she could remember about her first U.S. Open, in 1998, was the match she lost.

In pursuit of a record-tying 24th major title, Serena Williams, the greatest player ever, is not a tractor plowing through the field anymore. It makes you want to watch her more than ever.

Follow Wayne Coffey on Twitter @wr_coffey

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