“This is not inevitable for me. I couldn’t even walk to my mailbox, so it’s definitely not normal for me to be in a Wimbledon final.”
Perspective, in sport, is irreplaceable. Results cannot always be seen through just the prism of a scorecard, performance cannot be always measured by victory or defeat.
Yet, we can be guilty of this very thing.
For example, when we say ‘Serena Williams is the favourite at Wimbledon’ even before the tournament has begun or ‘Serena Williams cruises to the final’ as it nears the end.
We cannot just see the player is in the final dropping only one set in an open field. We cannot just see 23-time Grand Slam champion is just a match away from drawing level with Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24.
We also have to see the player who is in only in her fourth tournament since her return from childbirth and a series of emergency surgeries to prevent life-threatening blood clots. We also have to see the competitor who has a 10-month-old daughter travelling with her.
Immediately after she sealed her spot in her 10th singles final at the All England Club with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Germany’s Julia Goerges, Serena herself put her win in perspective.
“It’s crazy. I don’t even know how to feel because I literally didn’t think I’d do this well in my fourth tournament back. It’s no secret I had a super tough delivery. I lost count after, like, four surgeries because I was in so many surgeries. It was just routine every day, I had to have a new surgery. Because of all the blood issues I have, I was really touch-and-go for a minute. I’m glad no one told me at the time I was going through that.”— Serena Williams after winning her semi-final match
She was bed-ridden for six weeks and only returned to the tour in March, after initial hopes of defending her title in Australia. She struggled at the year-end exhibition matches in Abu Dhabi. In her first official tournament at Indian Wells, she managed to win her first two matches but lost to sister Venus in the third. In Miami, she lost in the first round to Naomi Osaka. In neither of those matches did she, understandably, look like the Serena of old
At the French Open, her first Grand Slam back, she showed much better agility and fitness to win her first three matches in singles and two in doubles. In a catsuit that was as much a health precaution as a style statement, it was evident she wasn’t a 100% physically, yet she persevered with her mix of power and resolve, before a pectoral injury forced her to pull out in the fourth round.
But on the grass of Wimbledon, a surface she has always been comfortable on and one that doesn’t need as much force as clay, she has built up a commendable momentum right from the start. The draw opening up with the fall of seeds is incidental. Regardless, Serena has played vintage tennis.
In the two matches she was really tested, against Kristina Mladenovic and Camilla Giorgi, she showed off her impressive ability to dig in, raising her level when went a set down in the quarter-final.
In the semi-finals as well, Goerges was no pushover. In fact, contrary to the straight sets score line, she gave a tough fight but Serena was just better at elevating her game, the numbers say it all.
She hit just 16 winners, four less than Goerges, and sent down five aces which is not much for her. But she made fewer errors and played smart tennis, putting the onus and pressure on the first-time semi-finalist.
One break of serve is all she needs and she got that by the forcing errors and then consolidated with a classic love hold. No need for extra steps when the basics can get you the results. Broken while serving for the match, she responded with more pressure, attacking the weak link she saw Georges’s forehand – and eventually broke right back to clinch the win.
It was straightforward, but effective. Just as she has been throughout the last 10 days, physically.
The physical rigours of playing at this level less than 10 months after giving birth and a surgeries are unimaginable by most, but the mental challenge has been just as daunting.
“For me, having to deal with PEs is more mentally challenging because if I have a pain in my leg, I automatically go to the worst-case scenario. That is not very easy. I mean, even this week, I had a pain in my leg, and I went to the worst-case scenario: Oh, my God, I have a PE in my leg. I didn’t know I would have such kind of traumatic thoughts… It’s interesting how that mental recovery is actually taking much longer than I ever expected.”
Hunger to succeed
That Serena, who is among the grittiest and most mentally strong player on tour, has such thoughts and overcomes them, speaks volumes about her determination to compete. For a whole week before the Championship began, she posted throwback photos and motivational quotes around her many wins here. After every win, she is sharing her thoughts with more quote bale quotes on social media.
It’s easy to say that she only returned to win the record 24th Major, that she may have called time on her career if she had already had the record.
But her hunger to return is not just dependent on records. This is the same player who won her last Grand Slam title while she knew she was eight weeks pregnant, not dropping a set. Serena didn’t do 23 for greatness either, even though it put her clear of Steffi Graf’s record. It is the desire to compete and be the best at the highest level, one that she has carried since she was a teenager. One can’t spend 20 up-and-down years on the tour and still be winning without this intense desire to succeed.
Kim Clijsters, the last woman to win a Grand Slam as a new mother, and Li Na, have both spoke about the toll motherhood can take on a player mentally and physically – sleepless nights, constant worry, fatigue. The commentary team at Wimbledon never fail to remind us that Serena is a hands-on mother who wakes up at night to take care of her 10-month old daughter. Serena herself has revealed the more intimate struggles, be it having to give up breastfeeding in April to regain her fitness or missing Olympia’s first steps.
She is not the only mother on tour and as many have pointed out, Victoria Azarenka battle through mental strain over a custody battle less than a year ago as well. The challenge to create career-family balance is true for every women athlete.
But the difference is that Serena has picked up from where she left of. At Wimbledon, on a 20-match unbeaten streak having lifted the title in 2015 and 2016, it is like she has never been away.