On 12 November 2002, almost 20 years ago, Serena Williams played the last match of her season, narrowly losing to Kim Clijsters in the WTA Championship final. It closed off one of the greatest professional tennis seasons, which included three grand slam titles in a row, Williams’ rise to No 1 and her emergence as an all-time great.
A day later, Emma Raducanu was born.
Some 21 years separate 40 year-old Williams and Raducanu, 19, and they are generations apart. It was unlikely they would ever stand across from each other on a court as professionals. But on Monday night, the unseeded Williams and 10th seed Raducanu will face each other in the opening round of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio. Their first meeting will very likely be their last.
Less than a week since Williams announced she was “evolving away from tennis” and her retirement was imminent, the countdown continues. After losing to a spotless Belinda Bencic in their second round match at the National Bank Open in Toronto, Williams was overcome with emotion, barely holding back tears in the on-court interview. She will play in Cincinnati, then the US Open and then expects to be finished.
Raducanu will be the second-youngest opponent of Williams’ career. Despite her continued presence on the tour, Williams has not played against many of the current generation of top players, only four of the current top 11 ranked players have ever faced her.
As her colleagues reacted to her retirement announcement earlier in the week, a common sentiment from many players, particularly Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff, was regret that they never had the opportunity to play against her.
“A little bit sad because I have always wanted to play her,” said Gauff. “So I’m hoping that my draw in Cincinnati or US Open or even here can work out so we can play each other. Because that’s just one of my goals.”
For so long, players had desperately hoped to avoid Williams. Now, in the final weeks of her career, many are hoping to tick facing Williams off their bucket list, an opportunity Raducanu has received.
“She has achieved so much,” said Raducanu in Toronto. “And to see her around in this US swing is really inspiring. She keeps playing because she obviously loves the game. And I think that longevity of a career is something that a lot of the players, and me especially, aspire to achieve as well.”
The countdown is not only on for Williams. Cincinnati will also mark Raducanu’s final event before she returns to New York to defend her US Open title and all 2000 points she earned. She has continually stressed she is unbothered by her current position, but increased pressure is only natural.
Monday night, though, will be a rare occasion over the past year where the majority of the focus and attention will be on the player across the net from Raducanu, perhaps an opportunity for her to swing freely against an opponent who has been a legend since the day Raducanu was born.