U.S. Open Pressure Points: No. 1 seed Serena Williams and her race against time

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Serena Williams ended her Grand Slam title drought at Wimbledon, but took an earlier-than-expected loss at the Olympic Games to Elina Svitolina. (AP)

A few years ago, Janko Tipsarevic sat across a table at the Miami Masters and said one of the wisest things this reporter has ever heard. Tipsarevic, fellow countryman and good friend of Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, said that his primary goal in most matches was to win his first three or four service games. “Once it gets to be four-all, or 4-5, the pressure can get to anybody,” Tipsarevic said. “Anybody can choke. Even the great players because everybody is human.”

The relevant point as the U.S. Open approaches is that even iconic players can fall victim to pressure. That brings us to Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, the top singles seeds at the final Grand Slam of the year, who will certainly be feeling a measure of compression in their minds as the tournament unfolds.

This won’t be the kind of pressure than can be wiped away with a clutch service return winner, or an ace down the T at 30-40. It will be a more general, unfocused kind of pressure, and one that both of them will have every right to resent and may even deny feeling.

Pressure. It’s a concept and word that makes people want to say profound things that are both true and false—“Pressure is a privilege,” or, “The only pressure is the kind you put on yourself.” The word is overused, abused, but as deadly as ever. The best thing Williams might say about it is that she’s learning to live with pressure.

Williams won Grand Slam singles title No. 22 at Wimbledon in July to equal Steffi Graf's Open-era record. Afterward, she copped to a fact that she felt substantial pressure last summer—something she had previously denied—while she strived to hit that number as well as complete a calendar-year Grand Slam at the U.S. Open.

“The one thing I learned about last year is to enjoy the moment,” Williams said this year in London, when asked if she would now set her sights on Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 major singles titles. “I'm definitely going to enjoy this.”

Williams’ joy lasted as long as her next tournament appearance, at the Olympic Games in Rio. Serena and Venus Williams, undefeated in Olympic doubles in their career after three gold-medal runs, were ousted in the first round. Then, Serena, the top seed in singles, lost in the third round to Elina Svitolina, whom she had beaten all four times they played. There were tears in Williams’ eyes near the end of that stunner.

Just as important, there was pain in Williams' right shoulder. It may have accounted for the relative decline in her serving prowess.

“It didn’t work out the way I wanted it to,” was all Serena would say of her Olympic experience. “But at least I was able to make it to Rio. That was one of my goals.”

Williams left Rio needing just four more weeks atop the WTA rankings to equal Steffi Graf’s prestigious record of 186 consecutive weeks ranked No. 1. But adopting the long view, she pulled out of the Cincinnati Premier-level tournament that began immediately after the Olympics concluded. That put Angelique Kerber, Williams’ conqueror at the Australian Open and newly emerged rival, into a position to do what might have seemed unthinkable a year ago: She could have stripped Williams of the top ranking. With a title in Cincy, Kerber would depriving Williams of the chance to beat Graf’s record.

Kerber came just one win short of ending Williams’ reign, but it now looks like the prize will be up for grabs in Flushing Meadows.

Williams clearly is in a race against time. Her injuries have multiplied. Her serve hasn’t been what it once was. She struggles in matches that appear easily winnable. She is still tied with Graf in the title count. It’s a recipe for feeling pressed.

If Williams’ reaction is true to form, she’ll repeat her mantra: “The only pressure I feel is what I put on myself.” Fair enough. But the source hardly matters, and there’s another reality here: Great players hate to lose, and they especially hate to lose status. Can Williams be content at No. 2, or lower?

Click here to read U.S. Open Pressure Points: No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic and an unexpected turn of events

Williams and Djokovic receive pressure differently. They respond to it differently. Djokovic tries to demystify it with rational discourse: “Expectations are always there from myself and from the people around me,” he once said. “I think that's normal and logical to expect that.” Williams tries to deny or turn her back on it, acknowledging only the pressure she puts on herself, perhaps not recognizing it may amount to one and the same thing.

The one thing neither can really do is escape it.

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