Should Serena Williams manage to overcome the long odds and power her way through to the U.S. Open finals on Sept. 10, ESPN will likely ring up its highest ratings since it picked up the rights to the tournament eight years ago for $770 million—and that’s taking into account the absence of Novak Djokovic, who earlier today announced his withdrawal from the event.
While Vegas books would suggest that Williams isn’t likely to close out her career with a 24th Grand Slam title—ahead of the women’s draw, Williams was listed as a +3300 long shot—as Chris Evert said to the media earlier this week, “don’t underestimate her.” Williams will face the unseeded Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in the opening round.
Williams’ impact on tennis has been nothing short of transformative, and it’s fair to say that she’s reinvented the sport since winning her first title at Flushing Meadows back in 1999. If it took nearly 20 years for the women’s tour to adapt to her massive serve and the ferocity of her groundstrokes, Williams’ impact on the TV ratings was immediate; her victory over Martina Hingis nearly a quarter-century ago averaged 8.5 million viewers, earning a higher share than the five-set men’s final.
Two years later, Williams lost in straight sets to her older sister, Venus, in front of an average audience of 10.3 million viewers (see chart). At the time, CBS touted a draw of 22.7 million, a figure that still gets reported to this day, and while that’s an accurate count inasmuch as it reflects the network’s cumulative audience over the duration of the match, that all-encompassing tally shouldn’t be confused with the standard average-minute delivery. Still, the turnout for the Williams sisters’ primetime showdown remains the gold standard for a U.S. tennis broadcast, one we’re unlikely to see replicated.
“The ratings were through the roof and that was incredible,” John McEnroe said on a Wednesday press call arranged by ESPN. “That just electrified the women’s game even more so, I believe. Took it to a whole other level, the two Williams sisters.”
The following year, Serena went on to dispatch Venus by a 6-4, 6-3 margin, in a match that seemed to forever alter the power dynamic between the two sisters. While Venus Williams is weirdly overlooked (over the course of her career, she’s won five Wimbledon titles and two U.S. Open finals), it’s Serena who’s assumed the burden of being the face of women’s tennis for the last two decades, and it’s Serena who moves the ratings needle. Despite a weather postponement that set up a direct conflict with the second Sunday of NFL action, Williams’ 2013 rematch with Victoria Azarenka drew 6.17 million viewers, or nearly two-and-a-half times as many impressions as the Serena-free final in 2010.
As Williams’ considerable powers began to wane, the impact on the ratings became hard to ignore. More to the point, her decline has created a power vacuum on the tour. Since winning her 23rd Slam at Wimbledon in 2017, 14 different women’s champions have emerged across the four majors; of these, only Naomi Osaka is what you might call a household name. Over the same period, just five men have won a major—and it’s a safe bet that you can name at least three of them.
If Williams has no clear heir apparent—among the most successful players of the last five years include two-time U.S. Open champ Osaka, who won her last major at the 2021 Australian Open and is listed at +1200 to win in New York—the evolution of the women’s game should continue to make for some compelling matchups. Last year, ESPN drew its highest rating for a non-Serena U.S. Open final, as Emma Raducanu’s victory over Leylah Fernandez averaged 2.44 million viewers. Deliveries for this meeting of unseeded teenagers peaked at 3.4 million viewers; at the same time Raducanu was cruising to her 6-4, 6-3 win, around 11.5 million viewers were watching college football.
As has been the case for the last several years, the 2021 women’s final out-delivered the men’s title match, as Sunday’s Daniil Medvedev’s win over Djokovic in straight sets averaged 2.5 million viewers, peaking at 2.7 million. Of course, the men’s match had a lot more competition with which to contend, as 35.8 million people were watching the late-afternoon NFL games on CBS and Fox while Medvedev was handing Djokovic a stunning 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss.
With Williams about to make her final run at a singles title, ESPN can expect an uptick in deliveries up until the moment she hangs up her racket for good. Her on-court farewell should be appointment TV; after all, it’s not every day a legend walks off into the sunset. And while Evert says Williams’ game has improved in recent weeks, “the problem is everybody else is getting better, too.”
Despite Evert’s caution about never counting Williams out, it’s her guess that Serena’s swan song will hit its final note well before the Sept. 10 final. “I mean, when you look at the way Coco [Gauff] is playing and Madison Keys, [Simona] Halep, [Ons] Jabeur, Raducanu…I think there’s a lot of good players out there now who aren’t intimidated by her, and know that she’s not at her best,” Evert said.
For his part, McEnroe said he doesn’t have any real insight into how Williams’ destiny might unfold in Queens. “It’s totally unknown; could be [she exits] in the first round, or she could actually make a run,” McEnroe said. “We’ll have to wait and see, because I know the crowd will be super behind her if she makes a good run.”
Now ranked No. 608 in the world, Williams enters her final U.S. Open unseeded, which will only make her quest for No. 24 all the more arduous. Like most athletes, tennis players rarely go out on top, but every point Williams plays from here on in will have the weight of history behind it. “I think it’s going to be tough for her to get into the second week,” Evert said. “But she always seems to keep us in suspense, doesn’t she? So, we’ll see.”
(This article has been updated in the second paragraph to include Williams' opponent in the first round.)