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Serena Williams Loses Chance To Break Grand Slam Record

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After she won Wimbledon in July, it seemed like Serena Williams was poised to break Steffi Graf's long-standing record of winning 22 grand slam singles titles. But after a surprising loss last night at the U.S. Open, Williams will have to wait for another chance. It's just the latest drama in an exciting U.S. Open. The men's title is up for grabs this weekend as well. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated is at the U.S. Open in New York City. Welcome back, Jon.

JON WERTHEIM: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: So what exactly happened with Serena Williams? What's the explanation here?

WERTHEIM: My four-letter explanation - T-I-M-E. Serena turns 35 later this month. And she looked like someone in their mid-30s about to leave the 18-to-34 demographic last night. She had a very exciting match on Wednesday night, but it was a three-set match that I think depleted her a little bit. And she came back on Thursday with less than 24 hours rest and looked like a spent player. She ran into a powerful opponent. This player - Karolina Pliskova - had beaten Venus earlier in the tournament. But I do think last night was really more about Serena being far from her best. She had some injuries and her timing was flat. She had 18 aces in her previous match, only five last night. And basically she looked, sadly, mortal.

CORNISH: Well, settle down here because she's been number one for - what? - like, 186 weeks? I mean, it's not like she's playing poorly.

WERTHEIM: No, that's what's been interesting about this

WERTHEIM: Serena's kept her number one ranking up through this tournament. She reached the finals of the first three majors. She won Wimbledon. She reached the semifinals here. So part of what's interesting about her year is that this hasn't been - she hasn't fallen off a cliff. This hasn't been a dramatic drop off. She's just had a hard time closing matches late in the tournament, which is completely new for her.

I mean, it used to be if she got to this stage in an event you may as well start engraving her name. You had to - the book was you had to get to Serena early, and nobody's really done that this year. And yet she's had a hard time closing, which is something we've never seen from her before.

CORNISH: Well, tomorrow in the finals it's Karolina Pliskova and who? Tell me what this setup is going to be.

WERTHEIM: She is facing Angie Kerber, a German player who is the player who will now take over the number one ranking from Serena. I think the casual fan will see this and think, oh, and how in the world is Serena not number one? But Kerber's having this fantastic year. She actually beat Serena in the Australian Open final, lost to her in the Wimbledon final. She was a silver medalist. She plays sort of subtle, tactical tennis. She moves very well. This number one ranking is very well deserved.

But again, I think the big takeaway from this story is a year ago, Serena was trying to win the Grand Slam, all four majors in the year, and she came up just a little bit short. This year, it was not nearly as decorated a year. She only won one major and lost at three others, including the U.S. Open, obviously.

CORNISH: I want to talk about the men now. Of the so-called big four, you had Roger Federer sitting out due to injury, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray both upset earlier in the tournament. So who's left? What's going on?

WERTHEIM: Novak Djokovic will have to carry the banner of the big four. This is - just to give you an idea of how their excellence has been such a dominating theme - this is the first tournament in more than six years at which at least two of them hasn't been represented in the final four of a tournament. So Djokovic will have to represent the big four. He is the defending champion, the number one ranked player, the number one seed.

But there are three outsiders who have crashed the party and again, as with Serena, I wonder if time isn't our theme here. Rafael Nadal is now north of 30. Roger Federer is 35. And I - sadly maybe this transition is just inevitable, time doing its thing.

CORNISH: That's Jon Wertheim, executive editor of Sports Illustrated, talking to us from the U.S. Open in New York. Thanks so much.

WERTHEIM: Anytime, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.