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Serena on the cusp of history at AO 2020

  • Reem Abulleil

When a 36-year-old Serena Williams hoisted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at Melbourne Park in January 2017 to celebrate her 23rd Grand Slam title, the tennis world was instantly put on notice as the American edged ever so close towards one of the most enduring records of the sport. 

That victory for Williams, over her sister Venus, at the Australian Open, placed her just one major shy of Margaret Court’s all-time haul of 24. 

It was Williams’ sixth Grand Slam triumph in her last 10 appearances; surely number 24 was just around the corner, everyone presumed. 

But what few people knew at the time was that Williams was pregnant, and she wouldn’t step on a court competitively again until March 2018, more than a year after lifting the trophy on Rod Laver Arena, and some seven months after having her first daughter Olympia. 

Williams survived a series of life-threatening complications post-delivery, and when she recovered, she says a return to tennis was never in doubt because she felt her “story wasn’t over yet”. She’s been writing new chapters ever since, and at 38, heads to the 2020 Australian Open still chasing Court’s record and that elusive 24th. 

The American – a seven-time champion in Melbourne – has played and lost four Grand Slam finals since returning from her maternity leave. Between 1999 and 2017, Williams lost a mere six finals at the majors, so losing four in the last two seasons has admittedly been “frustrating” for her. 

Well aware of the magnitude of what she is trying to achieve – attempting to win a historic major in her late thirties while traveling the tour with a toddler in tow – Williams said recently she is “proud” of herself for reaching all those Slam finals so soon after having a baby.

But she never expected anything less and her disappointment over those four defeats probably exceeds that sense of pride. 

At Australian Open 2019, Williams was leading Karolina Pliskova 5-1 in the third set of their quarterfinal but rolled her ankle and ended up losing, despite holding four match points. It was just her fourth major since coming back to the tour, but she was already aiming high. 

“It's definitely not easy for me. From day one, I expect to go out and, quite frankly, to win. That hasn't happened,” Williams said after the Pliskova clash. “But I do like my attitude. I like that I don't want to go out here and say, ‘I expect to lose because I had a year off, I've been playing for ten months. I'm not supposed to win’. I don't have that attitude. 

“I have the attitude of, like, ‘I've only been playing 10 months, but I expect to win, and if I don't, it's disappointing.' I rather think of it that way and know that it's going to happen sooner or later than making an excuse for myself. I don't like making excuses.”

A few months later, nursing a knee injury (that ultimately limited her schedule to just eight tournaments in 2019), Williams stumbled out of the French Open third round to US youngster Sofia Kenin, before losing back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and the US Open to Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu respectively. 

“All of it honestly, truly is super frustrating,” Williams confessed to reporters in New York following her straight-sets defeat to Andreescu in September. 

“I'm, like, so close, so close, so close, yet so far away. I don’t know what to say. I guess I got to keep going if I want to be a professional tennis player. And I just got to keep fighting through it.”

That last line is Serena Williams in a nutshell. Even at her most vulnerable, her immediate instinct is to fight back. 

It helps that she is no stranger to overcoming obstacles, and Williams remembers all too well how tough it was for her to win an 18th major that saw her match the tally of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Equalling Steffi Graf’s Open Era mark of 22 was no walk in the park either, but she did it anyway. 

It was after getting her 18th that Williams experienced a shift in perspective. With some insight from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, she says she stopped trying to equal records, and instead decided to focus on collecting as many Grand Slam titles as she could. 

While she told Vogue magazine after having Olympia that, “It’s not a secret that I have my sights on ‘25’," and “Why would I want to stand side by side when I can stand out on my own?” Williams is now steering away from talking numbers. 

After her Andreescu loss, she clarified: “I'm not necessarily chasing a record. I'm just trying to win Grand Slams.”

Only three mothers have ever won a singles Grand Slam – Court, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, and Kim Clijsters – and if Williams joins that club, she would be the oldest mum to accomplish that feat.

Pundits and legends of the sport may feel that Williams is running out of opportunities to add to her major tally, but her coach Mouratoglou sees it differently. 

“I think time is working for her,” the Frenchman recently told Sky Sports. “I think she was much better at the US Open than she was at Wimbledon, and Wimbledon [was] better than Roland Garros. She is getting back in shape, and the more in shape she will be, the more dangerous she will be.

"I think she has started to play really good tennis.”

Serena Williams in action at the US Open in 2019. (Getty Images)

Navratilova feels the Australian Open will provide a great chance for Williams, because the faster surface and conditions would suit her better than New York. Williams is 85-11 win-loss in Melbourne Park, and will be eyeing an eighth trophy there come January.

It is her recent record in Slam finals that could have an effect on her though, explains Navratilova. 

“More than anything else, it is mental more than physical,” Navratilova wrote in her column for the WTA website. 

“I still think Serena can get to 24 majors. But, after losing four in a row, every major final is now going to be harder for Serena. For one thing, there are going to be more players who think they can beat her. And also the scar tissue and the pressure will only grow. Just 'Average Serena' is not going to cut it in Melbourne in January; she will have to bring her best.”

Williams acknowledges that she must find a way to bring her A-game once again in finals. As she takes on a new group of young contenders – some, like Andreescu, weren’t even born when she won her first Slam – Williams notes how the women’s game today features way more depth in field compared to when she started out. The youth brigade comes armed with both talent and fearlessness, but Mouratoglou has faith in Williams’ cause. 

“She [Serena] is playing one match for history. This is the highest pressure anyone can have in life and on the other side of the court she plays girls who have zero pressure because it is their first final. That makes a big difference. But at some point she will figure out how to deal with that,” he assures. 

Will she figure it out in Melbourne? We won’t be waiting much longer to find out.