Two players at this US Open, Serena Williams and Laura Robson, are coming to terms with what is left of their very different careers and doing it in contrasting ways.
When she arrived in New York for the tournament a year ago, Williams looked and sounded nervous, an observation given substance when the Italian doubles genius, Roberta Vinci, caused a shock by putting her out in the semi-finals, crushing the world No1 when she was within reach of completing the first calendar slam since Steffi Graf in 1988.
It became obvious in the aftermath of that disappointment that the weight of history was too much for the best player in the world, the best of her generation and probably of all time.
Twelve months later, Williams, who has just turned 35, is still chasing Graf. She has at last pulled alongside her on 22 majors and is a week shy of the German’s record of 185 consecutive weeks at No1 in the world. Again, there are worrying signs of anxiety.
“Mentally, some times I definitely do put a little more pressure on myself than I did a long time ago,” Williams said after the draw on Friday had pitched her into a first-round match against Ekaterina Makarova, on the same side of the draw as her sister Venus and Sam Stosur, the Australian who beat her in an extraordinary final at the end of a tumultuous tournament in 2011.
It seems such a long time ago and it is easy to forget the trauma Williams had been through with illness and injury. Her home slam was her sixth and last tournament of the season. Her ranking then tumbled to No12 in the world and despond gripped her, shaking her self‑belief to the core.
Her health is letting her down again, this time a shoulder injury that has restricted her shot-making and her recent appearances, even though she declares herself fully fit. She went out early at the Rio Olympics and pulled out of the Cincinnati Open at the last minute after making the long journey from Brazil.
“It wasn’t very easy, physically, just really trying so hard and trying everything to get better,” she said. “I knew I gave the best effort I could and it just wasn’t enough.”
Seasoned Serena-watcher Chris Evert, whose own cool demeanour in a garlanded career was so at odds with the public near-meltdowns of her compatriot, recognises the pressure building on Williams.
“There’s a lot at stake for her, to break Steffi in so many different ways,” Evert said on ESPN. “First of all, to win 23 and also the consecutive weeks. Hopefully, she can get that shoulder right. I think a lot of it has to do with her shoulder because that serve is the big key for her to win matches. There’s going to be pressure on Serena.”
How much of it is generated from within is impossible to see. But the odds are she will again look as if someone is trying to extract her teeth on every point. Still, you get the feeling she is ready to make some more history.
Laura Robson, meanwhile, has an entirely different take on her past and her future. She squeezed into the main draw on Friday with a stirring, flawed win over the German Tatjana Maria, 7-6 (7-5), 6-1, and spoke about how she has stopped trying to recreate what she had achieved before a wrist injury cut her down more than two-and-a-half years ago in Hobart.
Surgery and long, tedious rehab would have sapped the spirit of many players – and did not exactly please the young Londoner – but, until she came away from Wimbledon this year, where the world No2, Angelique Kerber, embarrassed her, she had looked too much to her past, she admits.
“I’m not really looking at it that way any more,” she said. “I maybe was at the start of the year when I still had my protected [ranking], but it’s a totally different vibe for me now. I was so happy to just be in qualies and to play three good matches. To get through to the main draw is all I could ask for, to be honest. Now that I’m in the main draw I’m pumped about it, but I don’t really think about how I used to play because it’s so far down the line that I’m just taking it one match at a time.”
A cliché, but an apt one. In 2012 here, Robson retired the great Kim Clijsters and beat the world No9 Li Na, before Stosur, the defending champion, stopped her rousing run. This year, she enters on a stretch of eight unbeaten matches.
Still smiling, and looking fitter and leaner than when she was a prodigy, she said: “Initially, when I was coming back, I just lost the joy of playing a little bit. It was such a grind for me trying to get through a tournament and stay healthy. I’m just enjoying it. If it works out, great; if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world. My mum always says to me: ‘It’s just a tennis match.’ Although I did call her and she was tearing up a bit. So she says that, but it means a lot.”
On Tuesday, she plays her compatriot Naomi Broady, which made her smile. Robson had a mild premonition that would happen. The future is slowly overtaking the past.
• This article was amended on 27 August 2016 with a new headline and to correct the year in which Steffi Graf won a grand slam