Serena Williams was already walking to her chair with her head down before the ball was called out on the final point of the first set against Sloane Stephens during Saturday's third-round clash on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Stephens came out strong, ignoring her 1-5 record against the six-time tournament champion. She chased down every ball, won almost every extended rally and took the set 6-2. It seemed so routine, she didn't even crack a smile or clench her fist at its conclusion.
At any other US Open, Williams would have the fans chanting and cheering loudly, encouraging her back into the match as they have done countless times over her storied career. But this isn't like any tournament before. This time, Williams had just her own inner voice as she sat in her chair during the set break.
In the end, it was clear that voice was more than enough.
Stephens dominates Serena in first set
Sloane Stephens comes out strong and makes quick work of Serena Williams, taking the first set 6-2.
The 38-year-old stormed back -- rarely yelling her trademark "Come on!" after big points -- winning 10 of the last 12 games for a 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory. In the deciding match, she recorded a 92% win percentage on first serve.
"I just said, 'I don't want to lose in straight sets,' because I was like, 'How can I beat [her]? She's playing so good. Oh my gosh,'" Williams said during her on-court interview after the match. "And I was like, 'OK, Serena. Just get a game. Get a game.' And next thing I know, I won the second set and I was like, 'Oh, OK, great.'"
Williams struggled in her first two tournaments after tennis' restart following the six-month layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic, losing in the Top Seed Open quarterfinals and the third round of the Western & Southern Open. After defeating unseeded players in her first two rounds, Stephens, the No. 26 seed, was clearly the biggest test for Williams. The two have a contentious history on and off the court, making this the must-see match of the day.
For the first 38 minutes, it looked as though Williams would be handed her earliest exit at the US Open since her debut in 1998. She turned it around, not only recording one of her most impressive victories of the year but cementing her status as a favorite to win the tournament and tie Margaret Court's long-standing record of 24 Grand Slam titles.
Williams has been chasing Court's mark since returning in May 2018, eight months after giving birth. She has had the chance in four Slam finals, including the previous two in New York. But in each title match, she struggled, falling in straight sets. As her time in the sport is inevitably nearing a close, each loss has been met with increasing skepticism about her ability to win under such immense pressure.
She has shrugged off such questions in the past and graciously credited her opponents for having the better day. But when asked about the weight of it all on Saturday, she reflected for a moment.
"Sometimes it's harder than others," she said. "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.' So I wouldn't want it any other way. So I just try to think about how fortunate I am to have been in this position, and honestly, to be Serena."
In a year of unprecedented uncertainty and extensive restrictions surrounding the tournament, one of the biggest questions heading into the event was how Williams would respond to playing in front of empty seats. Many wondered if she had become accustomed to the energy of the adoring crowd and would struggle in its absence. Others wondered if the crowd had actually been a hindrance, as it increased the pressure on her. Williams hasn't provided much insight either way during any of the tournaments since the restart but has called it "relaxing" on multiple occasions.
On Saturday, Williams said the silence -- save for the fake crowd noise and the occasional sounds from her 3-year-old daughter, Olympia, watching from her suite -- gave her the clarity she needed with her back against the wall against a tough opponent.
"I love a crowd so much, and especially this crowd, but like I've said, I'm so intense that this is how I am in practice, incredibly intense," she said. "So, I guess I've been working on it for years through my practices."
Williams faces Maria Sakkari on Monday in the round of 16. Sakkari defeated Williams last week in the Western & Southern Open. Although the previous victory helps the No. 15-seeded Sakkari's confidence heading into the match, she acknowledged just how tough it will be -- even without a supportive crowd behind the superstar.
"You know, Serena is Serena," Sakkari said after her win on Saturday. "You have to come up with some great tennis. Otherwise there is no chance against her."