Spoiler conundrum

Serena Williams' peers want to witness history, but they also want to thwart it

Getty Images

NEW YORK — “Even if I play her, I almost want her to win,” Genie Bouchard said on Thursday following a first-round doubles win at the U.S. Open.

Last year’s Wimbledon finalist from Canada, who advanced to the last 16 in singles on Friday, added with a chuckle: “I’m joking, but …”

Bouchard’s sentiment is not uncommon on the grounds in Queens, where No. 1 Serena Williams is now four matches away from the first season sweep of all four majors in 27 years.

Williams fought nerves and a plucky Bethanie Mattek-Sands to power into the fourth round 3-6, 7-5, 6-0 on Friday night — the eighth time she’s won after dropping the opening set at a major this year.

Even No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania said on the eve of the Open that she wouldn’t mind seeing Williams become the fourth woman in history and first since Steffi Graf in 1988 to complete the Grand Slam.

“If I will not be in the finals, I want her to win,” Halep said. “If I will be in the finals with her, I want to win.”

With history on the line, potential spoilers walk a fine psychological line — akin to the complex feelings that arise when playing a friend.

Williams’ opponents want to win, but caught in the super charged media maelstrom of New York, they could feel an unconscious desire not to disappoint public sentiment.

“It’s like spoiling the perfect game with two out in the ninth,” says 1978 U.S. Open finalist Pam Shriver.

Plus, Williams is on home soil. The 33-year-old is almost sure to play her remaining matches on 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, as she did Friday evening in front of a packed house. Her New York embrace will be full throttle, and full throat.

“You don’t want to be the one,” said No. 18 seed Andrea Petkovic of Germany after beating Elena Vesnina of Russia to reach the third round Thursday.

Petkovic, one of the WTA’s most outspoken and articulate players, described the phenomenon as a kind of psychological osmosis.

“It’s something that the media creates and it settles into the players subconsciously,” the former French Open semifinalist said. “If you ask me, of course I will tell you I believe in beating her, right? But everybody is asking about the Grand Slam and you feel like that’s a huge piece of history. And also she has reached so much you kind of want her to reach that goal. That’s the problem. It’s so weird.”

Shriver, an analyst for ESPN, recalls internal discomfort when she upset Martina Navratilova, her good friend and doubles partner, in the quarterfinals at the 1982 U.S. Open.

Navratilova had defected from Czechoslovakia and become a naturalized U.S. citizen the year before. It was the one major the eventual 18-time Grand Slam champion had yet to win.

 “I definitely felt some conflict in the middle of the match, but not for long,” said Shriver.

Tennis is an individual sport with an entrenched me-first culture. So the flip side is extra incentive. Toppling 21-time major winner Williams on the cusp of cementing her status as the greatest of all time? That could redefine a career.

“You would be world-famous if you stop her,” said 1988 U.S. Open winner Mats Wilander, who comments for Eurosport.

Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands lost to Williams 7-6 (5), 6-3 on Wednesday night in her first match on Ashe.

She said history, or thwarting it, never entered her mind.

“That is not really bothering me at all,” she said. “I’m just thinking about the match and how I want to play.”

Some other players echoed that mindset when asked about the possibility of facing Williams with so much at stake.

“I wanted to win the match,” said Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, referring to her runner-up finish to Williams at Wimbledon. “I don’t care if it has to do with history.”

American veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands said she relished the chance to “mess up the draw a little bit” before facing Williams. She seemed uncowed on Friday. Her aggressive game plan flustered Williams, who finally pulled away and rolled off the final eight games.

At the net, Mattek-Sands told Williams she would be cheering for her to win the tournament. Whether that slipped into her psyche during the match is impossible to say.

Swede Wilander predicted that the tricky psychological pressure would mount as Williams moved through the draw. He said it could be hard to embrace the challenge in the atmosphere on Ashe.

“The problem is that I don’t think anyone is going to go out there and give it the fist pump,” he said. “I don’t think anyone dares do that.”

Then there is most awkward scenario of all: a potential all-Williams clash in the quarterfinals. Venus Williams remained on course Friday by ousting teenager Belinda Bencic of Switzerland 6-3, 6-4. Bencic is one of only two women to beat Serena in 53 matches this season.

“I think playing her sister is so difficult even though they’ve done it for so long now,” said U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez during Friday’s ESPN telecast.

Asked about it Friday, Venus told reporters: “Of course I have thought about it, and I would like us to have that moment so we can see how it is. We both have to get there. I think we both have a great opportunity to do so, but there are no givens. So the whole focus is, win your match one by one.”

Petkovic, who is in the opposite side of the draw, wasn’t overly concerned about how she would deal with the psychological tug-of-war if she played Serena. They can only meet in the final.

“I hope I can talk to you about that on Friday next week, and we can discuss it further more,” she laughed.