Serena Williams uses a butterfly effect to battle old enemy of time

The 38-year-old is seeking a 24th slam but there are hurdles to overcome, starting with Maria Sakkari on Monday

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 & Southern Open. After surviving then thriving against Stephens in their first match in five years, Williams betrayed the familiar tics of mid‑tournament mini-meltdown.

Her answers were short and to the point, her patience stretched.

“Quite frankly, I’m playing for grand slams,” she said in confirmation of the obvious. Her appearances on Tour are now treasured rarities. “My thing is just try to stay calm and be more serene,” she insisted, maybe having a private joke. And on it went, the get‑me‑out‑of-here replies, one foot tapping. “I don’t look back. I don’t look in the future too far. I’m just focused on right now.”

Asked about her meeting with Novak Djokovic to talk about his new players’ association, she did not budge from the script: “Right now I’m really focused on the US Open and nothing else.”

She conceded that she came to the net more against Stephens, and promised with a hint of flippancy: “So I’ll keep that in mind for the next match.” On the core question of handling the pressure of expectation, she opened up a little: “Sometimes it’s harder than others. Every day having ‘Serena’ on your back is a massive target for the Tour, for press, for stress. But, as Billie Jean King said, pressure is a privilege. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I just try to think about how fortunate I am to have been in this position, and honestly, to be Serena. It feels weird to say that.” It feels weird to listen to it.

On Naomi Osaka bringing seven different Black Lives Matter face masks to the tournament, she went back into her shell: “I have always said that my hope is in God’s kingdom, and I have talked about that a lot. I have taken solace in my religious beliefs.” On the Bryan brothers retiring, she could not help referencing her own situation: “It’s always sad to see another one go. It’s, like: ‘OK, it moves me even closer to the line,’ and I’m trying to avoid the line.”

Reminded she is one of three mothers left in the draw from nine who started, there was a similar overview: “I’m so happy that there are so many moms in the event, obviously because I’m one … I would never have thought I would be playing as a mom.”

She might play another, Tsvetana Pironkova, in the quarter-finals if she beats Sakkari. The unseeded Bulgarian has to get past Alizé Cornet, one of the few French players not caught up in the Benoît Paire maelstrom, and playing in a record 54th consecutive slam, but yet to reach the quarter-finals.

As a mother, Williams has not won a slam in five finals since 2017, even though her drive surely will not fade until her legacy is secure in her own mind as the best of them all.

Hers is not the only story here, of course. Victoria Azarenka, the other mother, is unseeded but playing superbly and has every chance of beating the 20th seed Karolina Muchova in the bottom quarter of Williams’s half.

Predictably, Williams has attracted more attention at her own home major than another American, Sofia Kenin, the only player in the field who might win a calendar slam with an asterisk. And the Australian Open champion, a resilient character with a tough father and a tougher game, could be waiting for her in the semi-finals, unless Elise Mertens blocks her path to a quarter-final against Azarenka.

It took Alison Van Uytvanck 22 aces – the most in a match by any player on Tour this year – to wear Kenin down through three tie-breaks in the Lyon semi‑final before lockdown, one of the year’s longest matches. The shortest? Williams’s 44-minute demolition of American teenager Amanda Anisimova in Auckland in January, which seems much longer ago than it is.

It’s been a weird week in New York. As Hunter S Thompson so rightly said, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.