Nobody in tennis suffers for her art like Serena Williams – except maybe her one-time doubles partner, Andy Murray. On the women’s Tour, nobody retreats into her own world so completely under pressure, external and self-induced, to then emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis and fly free.
For as long as she stays in the fight this week at Flushing Meadows, the greatest player of her generation will become more introspective, irascible, monosyllabic and explosive in pursuit of a 24th grand slam title. If she wins the final point of the tournament to move alongside Margaret Court after nearly three fruitless seasons, she will smile, thank the absent crowd and let go of the anxiety that gripped her so worryingly in the first set of her win over Sloane Stephens on Saturday.
That fear of losing – every bit as powerful as her obsession with winning – could consume her again on Monday against Maria Sakkari. They are both fine young players, born in the decade when 38-year-old Williams started her journey. Each has tortured her before, Stephens at the Australian Open seven years ago, Sakkari the previous week at this venue, in the Western And Southern Open.