When the U.S. Open begins Monday, eyes will be on two players: Serena Williams, to see if she can break through nearly four years after her daughter’s birth, and Naomi Osaka, to see if she can win in her current form and headspace.
The experts weren’t confident of either.
Stars-turned ESPN analysts John McEnroe and Pam Shriver conducted a wide-ranging interview Tuesday, with McEnroe saying he expects Novak Djokovic to be the first man since 1969 to complete a calendar year Grand Slam. But neither sounded confident about Williams, who has been conspicuously silent since injuring her right hamstring at Wimbledon, skipping the Olympics and pulling out of tournaments at Montreal and Cincinnati.
“I was like ‘Where’s Serena?’ Where are posts of her practicing and training? Where is [coach] Patrick Mouratoglou’s posts?” Shriver asked rhetorically. “Leading into majors in recent years, there were tells on social media from her close team, [Jarmere] Jenkins, her hitting partner. I find the silence a little bit disconcerting following what happened at Wimbledon. It’s been quiet, really quiet.
“Maybe the camp has decided to be very quiet, and it’s going to be a game-time, last-minute decision. … [But] it’s very quiet and I’m concerned that she’s physically not prepared to play the U.S. Open, which is a tournament that emotionally has taken its toll. Through the years she’s had some great highs and some of the most difficult lows that she’s faced on the tennis court…. I’m afraid we might be missing another one of the giants of the game for this U.S. Open.”
Williams has been trying to tie Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam titles since her 23rd victory, in the 2017 Australian Open. She has made four Slam finals since giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia in September 2017, but lost all four in straight sets.
“My feeling is the depth of women’s tennis — over seven matches under the conditions of the U.S. Open, on a hard court — at this stage for Serena is not possible,” Shriver said. “I’d love for her to prove me wrong. I just don’t have enough evidence that she’s going to be able to stay healthy in order to do what needs to be done, to win seven matches and be the last one standing.”
Both analysts seemed slightly more bullish on Osaka as a contender. But her obstacle was more headspace than physical health: Osaka withdrew from the French Open after just one match and skipped Wimbledon to focus on her mental health.
“Obviously all this stuff that’s been going on can’t possibly benefit her,” McEnroe said. “Your question is can she overcome it? Is she in the mindset to overcome it mentally and physically having not played that much, basically stepped away from the French and Wimbledon, then all that accompanied her being in Japan, lighting the caldron, et cetera, then losing.
“My concern is even though she showed a lot of courage to bring to the forefront mental health, my feeling is unfortunately that’s only going to exacerbate, make worse the attention that’s going to be put on her. They’re going to look at her even more carefully, whether it’s the press, fans, everyone around the sport…. That’s going to make it more difficult, not easier. That’s the part I’m worried about.”
Osaka is favored to defend her title, but Shriver said she sees Osaka as behind Ashleigh Barty, while McEnroe could picture 10 other contenders.
“These last few months obviously have been extremely difficult. John alluded to the effects of the year-and-a-half, the pandemic, the bandwidth that each individual athlete has to deal with adversity, it really varies,” Shriver said. “Barty seems to be doing great. … Osaka obviously has been having some struggles that she’s come forward with. It’s a little unpredictable.
“But she’s going back to a place where she’s won it twice. Usually when you have those kind of special memories, you can play some pretty good tennis. I expect her to play well, but I do have more questions going into this U.S. Open than I would’ve had the last few months been smoother for Naomi.”