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On Cusp Of History, Serena Williams Bears Big Expectations Into U.S. Open


The U.S. Open Tennis Championship begins Monday in New York with a familiar top seed in the women's draw. Serena Williams has won the Open six times, including the last three years in a row. There's an even greater prize if she wins again. She's trying to become the first player since 1988 to win the Grand Slam. That's all four major titles in the same year. Williams is shouldering huge expectations, but she's not alone in this banner year in sports, as NPR's Tom Goldman tells us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: There is pressure, and then there's Grand Slam pressure. But if Serena Williams is feeling it, she's not showing.


SERENA WILLIAMS: (Singing) Under the sea. Under the sea.

GOLDMAN: This week, she danced and sang karaoke from "The Little Mermaid." Yesterday, she told reporters she was more awed than nervous.


WILLIAMS: I always dreamt of winning the U.S. Open and I have always dreamt of winning the Grand Slam, but, again, it was just a dream. I never thought I would be close to doing something like that.

GOLDMAN: The fact that she's talking about it is a shift. As Williams ticked off the first three legs - the Australian and French Opens, and then Wimbledon - she largely gave the Grand Slam the silent treatment. Here she is with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi after winning last month's Wimbledon title.


TOM RINALDI: You've achieved so much, but for the first time, you've won the first three.

WILLIAMS: I know, I know. I don't want to talk about it (laughter).

GOLDMAN: But many do. It's a big deal. A tennis player winning the four majors in the same year has to summon excellence from January through the first weeks of September. The player has to master the hard courts in New York and Australia, the clay in Paris, the grass at Wimbledon. Steffi Graf did all that in 1988. Rod Laver was the last man to do it in singles in 1969. Trying to do it in 2015 with all the extra media attention creating huge expectations, it's that much tougher - kind of like trying to win horse racing's Triple Crown.



GOLDMAN: I called jockey Victor Espinoza this week to get another perspective on sports milestones and pressure, maybe a little more insight into what Williams is going through. In June, Espinoza rode American Pharaoh to the first Triple Crown since 1978. After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, it all came down to the long, grueling Belmont Stakes. Espinoza was trying to win the Triple Crown after failing to do it two previous times - the only jockey in history to get three shots. That ratcheted up the pressure. He says it got to him a bit about 20 minutes before the Belmont.

ESPINOZA: Either I'm going to be a hero for the next hour, or I'm going to be the worst jockey in history (laughter). It's not easy, let me tell you (laughter).

GOLDMAN: And how did you deal with those feelings?

ESPINOZA: I tried to be positive. It's all about, you know, confidence and being positive, not being negative.

GOLDMAN: Of course, the jockey is only part of a winning equation. The horse has to be right, and American Pharaoh was right as rain that June day - happy and outstanding, Espinoza says. A confident and alert Espinoza made the right tactical decisions. The result was history, something golfer Jordan Spieth had in his sights after winning the U.S. Open, also in June. The victory put him halfway to golf's Grand Slam, also comprised of four majors. It's been done once, in 1930. Spieth confronted the potential enormity with candor. This is from an ESPN interview before the third leg of the Slam, the British Open.


JORDAN SPIETH: I certainly am aware of it. I'm certainly aware of it leading up to it, but when I'm inside the ropes I seem to not really care much about that and just try and compete.

GOLDMAN: Maybe he momentarily cared too much. Spieth misplayed a couple of shots at the end of the tournament, and history was history. Just try and compete, though, is the mantra of every athlete who wants to tune out the chatter. The need to focus on the small and attainable is especially helpful for those pursuing oversized feats. Now that Serena Williams is talking about the Grand Slam, she acknowledges she wants to think about the upcoming opportunity to win the U.S. Open. It's a pretty good opportunity. This is only the fourth time she's been seeded first at the Open. The three previous times, she won the tournament. Do it again, and a stellar year becomes historic. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.