On a Busy First Day at the U.S. Open, All Eyes Are on Serena Williams

Iga Swiatek is seeded No. 1 for the first time this year at the U.S. Open and is trying to secure her first Grand Slam title somewhere other than the red clay of Roland Garros.

But on the eve of the U.S. Open, Swiatek had another priority: finally working up the courage to meet Serena Williams, a formidable champion whom Swiatek said made her feel like “a kid from kindergarten just looking at her.”

On Sunday, Swiatek posted a photograph of her with Williams on her social media accounts: “This is the highlight of my day,” Swiatek wrote on Twitter. “Congratulations on your amazing journey and legendary career @serenawilliams. Huge respect for everything you have done for our sport.”

It has been that sort of buildup to this year’s final Grand Slam tournament. There are an abundance of established and emerging players and story lines at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. But they are all relegated to the background for now as Williams, one of the greatest athletes of any generation, prepares to play what could be her final singles match on Monday night in the first round against the unseeded Danka Kovinic.

Until this year, no Chinese man had qualified to play in the U.S. Open but two managed it this year — 25-year-old Zhang Zhizhen and 22-year-old Wu Yibing — and they are on Monday’s schedule after practicing together on Court 8 on Sunday with a small crowd of predominantly Mandarin-speaking fans applauding their efforts and besieging them for autographs and photographs when the training session ended.

On Monday, Americans Elizabeth Mandlik and Brandon Holt, both children of U.S. Open singles champions, will make their own Grand Slam debuts. Mandlik, the daughter of Hana Mandlikova, will face Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia. Holt, the son of Tracy Austin, will face Taylor Fritz, the No. 10 seed and top-ranked American who is himself the son of former top 10 women’s player Kathy May.

Also on Monday, Dominic Thiem, the 2020 U.S. Open men’s champion, will return to the tournament after missing last year’s Open with a serious wrist injury. He has a tough assignment against Pablo Carreño Busta, the smooth-moving Spaniard who has twice been a semifinalist at the U.S. Open and recently won the Masters 1000 tournament in Canada.

But all those intriguing tennis stories will take a back seat to Williams vs. Kovinic, and even the other tennis players have been looking for opportunities to meet and catch up with Williams.

“I watch her my whole life,” Swiatek, the 21-year-old Polish star, said of the 40-year-old Williams. “Basically she was everywhere, because she always won and was somewhere in the semifinals or the finals. I didn’t always feel like I’m this kind of player who can play similar tennis, because she always seemed so strong, really stronger than any of her opponents physically. But mentally for sure, she’s the one who’s going to show you how to use your position and how to kind of intimidate with being No. 1. I’m trying to do that. I don’t know if it’s going well or not.”

For Swiatek, Williams’s ability to juggle outside interests and motherhood with her tennis career have been a “great example.”

“I think it’s great that we have somebody like that in our sport who cleared the path and showed us that you can do anything,” she said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Naomi Osaka, a former No. 1 and two-time U.S. Open champion trying to recover her mojo after an unsuccessful stretch, spent more of her news conference on Friday answering questions about Williams than any other topic.

“I think that her legacy is really wide to the point where you can’t even describe it in words,” Osaka said. “She changed the sport so much. She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport. I think I’m a product of what she’s done. I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family. I’m very thankful to her.”

Grigor Dimitrov, the 17th seed in the men’s draw, catching up with Serena Williams during a practice session on Sunday.Credit…Julian Finney/Getty Images

Osaka’s family did use the extraordinary success of the Williamses as a “blueprint,” according to Osaka’s father Leonard Francois.

Naomi Osaka made her Grand Slam breakthrough by upsetting Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open final in a match where Williams was penalized a game after a series of code violations by chair umpire Carlos Ramos. Osaka ended up in tears at the on-court awards ceremony amid boos from the stands, which were not directed at her but at the way the final had unfolded.

She and Williams have long since moved on from that traumatic evening and developed a strong intergenerational connection.

When Williams played (and lost) in the first round of the Western and Southern Open earlier this month to Emma Raducanu, Osaka was in the stands, eager not to miss the opportunity after Williams had announced that the end of her playing career was imminent.

“I remember seeing an interview she did, I don’t know what it was, like an on-court thing, that if she retires, she’ll never tell anyone,” Osaka said. “I was really scared: Dang, when is the last time she’s going to play? Just to see her announce it and let people appreciate her legacy is really cool.”

Monday night will not be the last chance to do so: Win or lose against Kovinic, Serena is entered in the women’s doubles with her older sister Venus Williams.

But Monday night should be quite a moment, a sporting and cultural happening that comes on the 25th anniversary of Arthur Ashe Stadium, still the biggest permanent tennis venue in the world with its capacity of 23,771.

While Venus, unseeded, reached the women’s singles final the year Ashe Stadium opened in 1997, Serena did not get to play a match in the main stadium. But she did make her Grand Slam and U.S. Open debut, losing in the first round of doubles with her sister to Kathy Rinaldi and Jill Hetherington.

A quarter century later, Venus, 42, and Serena are the only women in this year’s draw who also played in the 1997 Open.

It is a moment to celebrate, an era to commemorate, and though there is no shortage of matches on Monday worth watching closely, there can be no doubt about which match is generating the biggest buzz.

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