NEW YORK — They can all do it, they can take down Serena — just ask them.
“Everybody wants to beat her because, if she wins, she will get the four.”
That was Garbine Muguruza speaking, last week, referring to the calendar Grand Slam that is so tantalizingly within the reach of Serena Williams — all four Grand Slam titles within the same calendar year, like low-hanging fruit to be picked in her U.S. Open backyard.
On a player’s best day, of course, anything is possible. And on a bad Williams day, she can indeed be knocked off. Do keep in mind that the most dominant woman in tennis – at this moment, arguably ever – has on 37 occasions left a majors without a trophy under her arm.
Some of the opponents who’ve defeated Williams are still standing here. True, only a handful are considered to be in the genuine threat bracket. Certainly nobody would have included outlier Kiki Bertens in that category, yet the Dutchwoman — ranked 110th in the world — put a scare into the all-but-crowned Queen of Flushing Meadows on Wednesday, pushing her to a first-set tiebreaker before bowing out in two frames.
The other women here watched. And they took note.
Muguruza was definitely among the potential Serena slayers. As the statuesque 21-year-old Spaniard reminded reporters the other day, she defeated Williams at the 2014 French Open and put up an admirable fight in the Wimbledon final two months ago. The hubris, perhaps, was looking ahead to a possible re-match with Williams in Queens.
Muguruza wouldn’t get that far.
On Thursday, in just the second round of the tournament, the ninth seed was herself upended in three ferocious sets, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (4), 6-2, by England’s unheralded Johanna Konta, ranked 97th on the WTA depth chart.
It was an epic match — at three hours and 26 minutes the longest women’s match in U.S. Open history. By the exhausting end, long gone was Muguruza’s sunny nature, completely knackered by the effort and the 30-degree midday temperatures.
Konta was hardly much chirpier. “I am so tired. I was humble enough to know that she could beat me, so I fought and chased down every ball.”
But Muguruza was generous, with 59 unforced errors.
And where does that leave the tiny contingent of legitimate slingshot challengers against the Goliath that is Williams? Unless, of course, she intends to back into the final by toying with the unthinkable, allowing seeming pushovers to get their hopes up.
A quartet of aspirants have at least the experience of conquering Williams in recent years, even recent weeks.
Come on down, teenager Belinda Bencic, the Swiss Miss reboot who polished off Williams in the Rogers Cup final last month. Bencic booked her place in the third round by scraping through a three-setter against Japan’s Misaki Doi on Wednesday. After dropping the first set, Bencic took a commanding 5-2 two-break-point lead in the second but was unable to convert six set points. Overwhelmed by frustration, she sat sobbing in her chair during a change-over. Then she had a hissy-fit at a chair umpire’s reversed call before prevailing in the third frame.
“I know I shouldn’t have behaved like that,” Bencic admitted. “For sure I know that. But sometimes I just can’t control myself right now.”
That is not the stuff of a Serena stalker. Whatever else, Williams has the most astonishing ability to rally, to adjust, to reverse-surge.
Then we have Samantha Stosur, who handily advanced to the third round by dispatching Evgeniya Rodina of Russia 6-1, 6-1. The Australian has the distinction of being the last woman to beat Williams at the U.S. Open — four years ago — and edging her again six months later at the French Open.
At 31, Stosur is close to Williams in age, if nowhere in the same area code of accomplishments. She did, however, show miffed at her post-match press conference, revealing that Williams had muscled onto her training regimen the previous day. “She kicked me off my practice court. A few issues . . .”
There’s also the Sabine Lisicki, who dumped Camila Giorgio in straight sets, 6-4, 6-0. The German defeated Williams at Wimbledon in 2013.
The most potent adversary for Williams could be two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, a 6-3, 6-4 winner over American Nicole Gibbs. The Amazonian Czech handed Williams her hat in Madrid in May, ending her win-streak of 27 matches on the tour. With Bencic, Kvitova is the only player to have defeated Williams this year.
And then there is — or was — Alize Cornet. The Frenchwoman has quite remarkably beaten Williams three times in a row at Grand Slam and WTA events, though one of those wins came via retirement.
Cornet, alas, took her first-round, three-set leave of Flushing Meadows on Tuesday. No doubt Williams heaved a sigh of relief.