Father Ron Rolheiser, a popular American Catholic writer and public speaker, has often written about the need “to carry solitude at a high level.”
As much as we might be constantly surrounded by the presence of loved ones — say, a sister who has won seven major titles, or a loyal and patient mother, or a coach-advocate of Greek heritage — the poignant reality of tennis, as in life, is that we are the captains of our souls. We can exist in very nourishing communal contexts, but that doesn’t prevent us from feeling alone sometimes. Moreover, whether we feel alone or not, only we — deep within ourselves — can steer clear of negativity or frustration and chart a course to success, to wholeness, to fulfillment.
It is up to the individual to face up to her (or his) “alone-ness” and carry it at a high level.
Does any other athlete on the planet carry solitude better than Serena Jameka Williams? No.
Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Katie Ledecky do so as well as Serena, but no one exceeds the 22-time major champion in terms of finding internal calm amidst the storms and plot twists of main-event competition.
This was reaffirmed Wednesday night at the U.S. Open.
On a day which revived a previously slumbering tournament, Serena and opponent Simona Halep provided the crown jewel. Williams fended off her gallant Romanian foe, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, in one of the best WTA matches of the year. In the process, Serena booked a spot in Thursday night’s semifinals against Karolina Pliskova, a winner over Ana Konjuh earlier in the day.
We have marveled at Serena’s machine-like excellence for so long that it’s easy to regard each new conquest as inevitable, or something close to it. Yet, even a quick and off-the-cuff survey of the recent past shows that Serena’s autumn empire has been built on perseverance as much as pulverizing power, on survival skills as much as strength and thunderous first serves.
Without looking up any facts on Google or in Wikipedia, the memories come rushing to the surface:
Serena lost a set to Anna-Lena Friedsam at the 2015 French Open, then fell behind 2-0 in the third set to Victoria Azarenka. She struggled against Sloane Stephens in the fourth round and Timea Bacsinszky in the semifinals. She was about to put away Lucie Safarova in the final but lost focus for several games. Again, she fell behind 2-0 in the third. Again, she came back and lifted a championship trophy in Paris.
Serena has lost sets at Wimbledon to Heather Watson and Christina McHale. She played through pain for much of this year’s French Open. She received a three-set battle from sister Venus at last year’s U.S. Open (in the quarterfinals). She came through all those tests. As a result, Serena came to New York having made the final in seven of the last eight major tournaments on the tennis calendar.
She’s one win away from making it eight of nine.
What was notable about Wednesday’s triumph over an in-form Halep is that her loss of a set was not the product of a walkabout adventure. Serena often litters the court with bad errors — in which her opponent is a peripheral figure at best — when she loses sets. Wednesday night inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, she watched Halep stand up to her in the ring.
Halep is small in stature, but she accessed a level of hitting which recalled her productive 2014 season on tour. Having absorbed many punches from Serena in the first set, Halep punched back in the second. Moreover, when drawn into two separate games of at least 20 points, Halep won each of those tests of wills, the second one closing out the second set. Thrown into the crucible of serving for a set against Serena at 5-4 in the second, Halep had to survive several break points before pushing the World No. 1 into a third stanza.
Serena — when victimized in a single set by her own errors, not primarily by her opponent’s quality — can simply say to herself (correctly) that if she cleans up her game, she’ll win. The second set of this crackling quarterfinal was more a story of Halep putting a lot of pressure on Serena and forcing her to hit nearly perfect shots with low levels of margin. Yes, Serena made a few errors on highly makeable shots, but it was clear to the audience that — as is sometimes the case in tennis — the opponent’s level of play had a role in eliciting those mistakes.
As the drama shifted to the third set, Halep — seeking her first major — was not the favorite in the match. However, she had established a level of presence on court which most Serena opponents don’t achieve.
The 22-time major champion — fully aware that someone had finally stood up to her at the U.S. Open — was thrust into a one-set pressure cooker. No, one set for a match is not quite the crapshoot a tiebreaker is, but it remains a small and contained level of tennis in which a few brief lapses can and do decide the outcome. Serena has survived so many third sets ever since she began this thunderous reign over the WTA at the 2014 U.S. Open; would she be able to do it again, just days before her 35th birthday?
No problem — Serena made the “evitable” feel inevitable… again.
Serena played well in the second set… except for break points. She got more than 10 of them and didn’t convert one. Some points were saved by Halep’s bravery, but some stood within Serena’s grasp and somehow avoided capture. Serena’s standard wasn’t the highest it’s ever been on Wednesday, but it was high enough to win most matches.
In the third set, Serena refused to allow the second set’s many frustrations to weigh her down. The blistering groundstrokes from neutral positions; the perfectly-calibrated blocked retrievals from defensive positions; the short, angled balls which other power merchants on the WTA Tour (looking at you, Madison Keys) have failed to develop — these and other parts of the World No. 1’s arsenal remained intact.
Serena maintained her standard, while Halep — having poured out everything just to win that second set — clearly began to lose the extra mustard on her fastball. Serena continued to pepper Halep with flat and authoritative lasers. The Romanian — who realized how important it is to be ranked in the top two (so that she doesn’t have to meet Serena until the final of a major tournament) — didn’t have an answer.
Doubt, frustration, fear of failure — these demons won’t be defeated 100 percent of the time by any athlete, any tennis player, or any human being. Serena fell victim to them at last year’s U.S. Open, when she caved under pressure against Roberta Vinci. However, among all tennis players (male or female), and among all solo-sport athletes, how many have answered the bell more regularly than Serena Jameka Williams has in the 21st century, especially over the past 24 months?
As regularly? Sure — include the Phelpses and Bolts and Ledeckys.
More regularly? Not one soul.
Simona Halep grew in stature on Wednesday night. Serena Williams managed to grow as well.
This business about carrying solitude at a high level? Serena has it down pat.