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After Serena Williams, a question for women’s tennis: What’s next?

Coco Gauff hits a return to Shuai Zhang during their fourth-round match at the U.S. Open in New York on Sunday. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

NEW YORK — The crowds at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center thinned only slightly in the days following what might have been Serena Williams’s final match.

It was possible to walk the site’s stone thoroughfares without circumnavigating mile-long lines at the Grey Goose and Heineken stands, but throngs still moved like molasses. Anyone interested in buying a T-shirt sized small, medium or large at the biggest gift shop on the grounds was probably out of luck.

Officially, the U.S. Open kept on trucking as it rode the contrails of a Williams-inducted ticket rush. It set a single-day attendance record Saturday with 72,065 fans pouring through the center’s turnstiles, which beat the previous day’s record-setting number by 26.

Yet the clouds that rolled in Friday and Saturday in the early afternoon contributed to a sort of hangover feeling at Flushing Meadows. The energy started to seep, and throughout Friday players were asked for their thoughts on the potential end of Williams’s career.

Jessica Pegula said it best.

“I just can’t believe the era of Serena is kind of, on the tennis court, is over. I mean, it’s just hard to picture tennis without her.”

The natural follow-up: What comes next?

Serena Williams’s exit was just like her career — a fight to the end

Women’s tennis has cycled through eras nearly without pause for the past few decades. When Chris Evert retired at the U.S. Open in 1989, Steffi Graf was already eight Grand Slam wins into her 22-trophy haul. Monica Seles won the first of her nine major titles at the French Open a year later.

Graf won the final major of her career in 1999, but it was a resurgent effort after going Slam-less in 1997 and 1998. The lag left room for a couple of years between her dominance and Williams’s first Grand Slam win at the U.S. Open in 1999.

Yet Williams has no heir apparent, no player or two who have proved they can dominate on court for a sustained period and command a mainstream audience. If Williams is actually finished with tennis, the active player with the most Grand Slam titles is her 42-year-old sister, Venus.

Naomi Osaka sits behind her with four major trophies. She is one of the most captivating athletes of her generation at 24, having grabbed audiences around the world and cemented herself as a powerful leader in the arenas of social justice and mental health.

On court, she hasn’t made it past the third round in a major since she collected her most recent Grand Slam title in Australia in February 2021.

No. 1 Iga Swiatek is a name that other players bring up as a potential world beater. The Polish 21-year-old won 37 straight matches earlier this year, a streak that included six consecutive WTA titles and a French Open crown.

“I don’t know — it’s open for someone to step up. As women’s tennis has shown, it’s been hard to be dominant,” Pegula said, referring to the 14 winners in the 21 major tournaments contested since Williams won her last in 2017. “That’s why you look at someone like Serena, dominant over several eras. It’s pretty crazy.”

Coco Gauff made an argument for herself Sunday. The 18-year-old defeated two-time major doubles champion Shuai Zhang of China, 7-5, 7-5, to reach her first career quarterfinal at the U.S. Open.

It was a thrilling follow-up to Gauff’s French Open finals appearance in June, when she lost to Swiatek. Sunday’s win was the first match to replicate some of the crowd energy and general frenzy Williams brought to Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The 12th-seeded Gauff was brilliant in the match’s tightest moments. She trailed 5-3 in the first set and 5-4 in the second, a hole she dug herself out of with a 105-mph serve and an ace. She riled up the crowd by wagging her finger after winning big points and generated an atmosphere that was so loud — with the roof over Ashe closed to keep away light rain — that Zhang clasped her hands over her ears at one point.

“The first couple times on Ashe, I was very nervous,” Gauff said of playing on tennis’s biggest stage, usually reserved for major winners or whichever player the U.S. Tennis Association thinks will draw the biggest crowds.

“I don’t know, I was really shocked. My first round, I was shocked that I was being put on Ashe. Then it happened again the second round. At that point, I figured maybe it would keep happening, especially when Serena was playing. This must be like a perfect lineup for viewers. You have me playing first, closing out with the GOAT. That’s crazy.”

Gauff still could be far from imitating Williams and capturing her first Grand Slam trophy in Flushing Meadows. She faces one of the hottest players on the tour, 17th-seeded Caroline Garcia, in the quarterfinals Tuesday. Swiatek and Pegula, the top-ranked American, are still alive in the draw, as are former major champions Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka.

Even if Gauff succeeds, approaching Williams’s status would take time.

The 23-time Grand Slam winner set the bar astronomically high for stars in women’s tennis — both on and off the court. On Wednesday, ESPN’s broadcast of her second-round win peaked at 5 million viewers. The peak of last year’s tournament for ESPN was the 3.4 million viewers who tuned in to watch Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez in the final (the men’s final peaked at 2.7 million viewers the next day).

Star power can make tennis seem dependent on one personality, Evert said. The six-time U.S. Open champion remembers wondering what the sport would do when Bjorn Borg retired in 1983. He was a Beatles-like figure in her mind.

“I thought, ‘Where the heck is tennis going to go — men’s tennis, especially?’ ” Evert said.

“I thought it was doomed. And it just bounced back in one or two years. And John [McEnroe] was there, and Jimmy [Connors] was there, and [Ivan] Lendl was there, and [Boris] Becker was there. And it just bounced back.”

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