Opinion: Serena Williams will be an underdog heading into U.S. Open, and that could actually help her

No matter whether she has been physically ready or not, dialed in or emotionally drained, it has been a long time since Serena Williams has entered a Grand Slam tournament without the weight of expectation that comes from lifelong greatness. 

As a 23-time major champion and a worldwide cultural icon who has shown the ability to contend even when she’s not at her best, discounting Serena’s chances or pointing out any weaknesses is tantamount to sacrilege to her legion of devoted fans. 

Yet at this moment, it has become a necessity to highlight Williams’ vulnerability and tennis mortality — not as an act of criticism, but rather compassion. Simply put, expecting her to win the U.S. Open, which begins next week, is no longer an acknowledgement of her talent but rather a burden.

At nearly 39 years old and now a mother, it is remarkable that Williams still has the drive to train and sacrifice and compete for Grand Slams. A decade ago, she scoffed at the idea she’d still be playing at this age, telling a reporter, “If I am, I want you to personally take me off and escort me off the court. There’s no way I need to be out here at 38.” 

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Serena Williams will be an underdog in next week's U.S. Open. (Photo: Timothy D. Easley, AP)

There’s an obvious reason why she said that: It’s really, really hard to do in a sport that is often unkind to those who have passed their physical peak. 

There’s another reason why she changed her mind: The pursuit of No. 24, the Grand Slam title that would tie her with Margaret Court.

It is impossible to get inside Williams’ head and to understand how much that goal is driving her, how much her failure to convert in any of her last four Grand Slam finals is bothering her. But the evidence now clearly suggests that it would be unfair for any of us to see failure if she ultimately falls short. 

Since the resumption of the WTA Tour, Williams has played five matches, all of them stretching to three sets. None of them have offered hints that she’s primed to win seven straight at the fan-less U.S. Open, where she won’t even have the advantage of overwhelming crowd support that might otherwise be a factor. 

To watch Williams the last two weeks has been an exercise in being impressed with her willingness to fight while also understanding there are limitations that didn’t used to be there. She still has the ability to out-serve opponents, but on a day-by-day basis, she will no longer out-hit them. There are good moments followed by stretches of impatience. Opponents who can open up the shoulders and pin her back with power are rushing her into errors. As the matches get longer, more and more stuff in her game seems to break down. 

After Tuesday’s 5-7, 7-6, 6-1 loss to No. 21-ranked Maria Sakkari at the Western & Southern Open — one day after pulling out a squeaker against No. 72 Arantxa Rus — Williams ridiculed herself for failing to win big, momentum-swinging points in every match since January. Keep in mind, the advantage of being a 23-time Grand Slam champion is the memory bank of delivering over and over in moments that can change games, sets and matches. 

Unless something changes dramatically in the next five days, Williams enters the Open as a decided underdog. Despite the fact that six of the top eight players ranked ahead of Williams decided not to play, her level will have to come up considerably to win the tournament. 

Part of the drama, of course, is the hope that maybe it still can. If Williams can survive the early rounds against unseeded players, perhaps she’ll play her way into form, catch a break in the draw and turn back the clock at the end of the tournament. Or maybe the odds of trying to do this at age 38 are long for a reason. 

It would be helpful if, for those very reasons, Williams let go of all the pressure she clearly feels to chase a record that doesn’t have any relevance to what she’s already accomplished.

Most intelligent tennis fans understand that there’s no rational way to compare Williams’ 23 Grand Slams to Court’s 24, which spanned both the amateur and the Open era and nearly half of which came in her home country of Australia, where top players rarely ventured at that time. (Just as a point of comparison, Billie Jean King only played the Australian Open five times in her career and Chris Evert just six.)

Williams does not need this to be widely considered the greatest of all time, and yet it often seems as though the stress of trying to achieve it weighs on her in big moments.

Williams’ best chance next week would be for her to lean into the fact that she has nothing more to prove. She’s no longer the best player in the world or even particularly close to it, but until she decides to walk away, her fans will hold on to hope that one more magical run remains. 

Viewed through that prism, Williams has a chance to exceed expectations at the U.S. Open. It’s been a long time since she’s had that luxury. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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