Being Serena is a 2018 documentary series chronicling Serena Williams during her pregnancy, motherhood, marriage and return to tennis. It was a seminal period in her storied career, as well as for women’s tennis.
A camera crew has been following the American superstar at the ongoing Australian Open too, presumably for a similar series. But even with all-access and intimate glimpse into her life, there is no way anyone can know what it is like being Serena.
On the tennis court, like in the record books, Serena stands alone.
This sporting solitude is particularly put in starker contrast after shattering defeats. Her heartbreaking loss to Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open 2021 semi-final and subsequent tearful exit from the press conference highlighted yet again the emotional rollercoaster she has to ride alone.
How could anyone else know what it is to win 23 Grand Slam singles titles in the Open era? How can anyone feel what it’s like to win a Major while eight weeks pregnant? How could anyone understand what it is to get yourself physically ready to play top-flight tennis and reach Slam finals less than a year after giving birth and undergoing life-saving surgery? How can anyone empathise with losing four straight finals after 23 wins?
No one can because no other tennis player has come close to achieving what she has or risen from adversity the way she has. For a player as successful and competitive, to fall short again and again and again, after battling all the odds to return to the highest level with a baby in tow, must be unimaginably difficult.
The 39-year-old has gotten up after every single blow, but on Thursday it felt like she was spent when she broke down during the press conference. The trigger was a question about saying farewell because she held her hand to her heart acknowledging the crowd. On the next one about her unforced error count, she teared up saying “I don’t know. I’m done,” and left the room.
She had been gracious on the court, hugging Osaka and thanking the fans, but off it, her resolve crumbled in that instant.
She had spent two decades in the spotlight and given hundreds of similar press conferences. But now, every loss is pegged as a goodbye, every gesture analysed for hidden meaning and it cannot be easy to answer the same questions or indeed enjoy playing.
A familiar story in big matches
Logically speaking, a 39-year-old who has won just the one WTA title in the last three years losing to a 23-year-old on an unbeaten streak which includes the last hard-court Grand Slam is no upset. In fact, Osaka was expected to win this match. She is 16 years younger and saved match points with ease two rounds back.
Why then did this defeat sting so much more? She has lost to the Japanese player – who considers Serena her idol – before, in the controversy-marred US Open final in 2018.
But that was before the worrying big-match anxiety of the American was known. In the two years since, it has become clear that this is a different Serena. A Serena who struggles in the kind of big points she used to win with a single shot, who cannot close out matches she once made a habit of dominating. Make no mistake, the 39-year-old is still a solid, hungry player who makes deep runs and challenges the best. But she is no longer the intimidating opponent she used to be.
Consider these two stats:
Serena Williams has reached a Grand Slam final for 13 straight seasons (from 2007 to 2019) including the year she gave birth. In her 23-year long career, she has failed to reach a Major semi-final in only two years – 1998, when she debuted and 2006 when she played only two Slams.
Yet, she has lost the six big (four finals, two semis) matches she has played since her return with all but one – the US Open semi-final against Victoria Azarenka – being straight sets
Serena's final losses
|Wimbledon||2018||Angelique Kerber||3–6, 3–6|
|US Open||2018||Naomi Osaka||2–6, 4–6|
|Wimbledon||2019||Simona Halep||2–6, 2–6|
|US Open||2019||Bianca Andreescu||3–6, 5–7|
She has a total of 10 runner up trophies at Slams and four of them have come in the last three years. Crucially, the pattern in all these losses has been similar: a spate of unforced errors putting undue pressure on her normally powerful serve and a crippling inability to “make a shot” – as she yelled in the match against Osaka.
In matches like these, the anguish transcends the screen. For fans, some of whom this writer has spoken to, it hurts to watch her evident struggles. There was a time her presence was intimidating as she could hit out any player in the world, but she has now lost that edge even as her hunger remains the same. It’s not unlike what is happening with her sister and oldest supporter Venus Williams. But in Serena’s case, the strenuous effort is so much more visible and visceral.
Serena’s failing powers
Yes, she has lost early in almost every tournament since her return, but she always found a way to raise her level at Slams and put herself in a position to win the elusive record-equalling 24th title only to stumble at the last hurdle.
Yes, she has come up against some of the best players in the Major finals: old foe Angelique Kerber and the uber-consistent Simona Halep at Wimbledon, big-hitting young guns Osaka and Bianca Andreescu. But she has beaten the same Halep twice at the Australian Open and Osaka at the Rogers Cup in 2019.
Where then does the block lie?
Can it be the pressure of tying with Margaret Court’s overall record? Of course, she has already faced that, when all anyone could talk about was breaking Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22.
Can it be the physical toll at the business end of a tournament? As a mother in her late 30s, possibly, but what then of one-week long Premier Tournaments?
Can it be a mental block in the big matches despite having two decades worth of experience at the level and more trophies than she has room for?
No one seems to know this, not even Serena herself when asked in numerous interactions.
But here is what we know as tennis watchers. Reconciling ourselves to Serena’s failing power is not easy given her dominance spanned two decades and generations of players. But what is easy is respecting her will to compete and the effort she puts in every single time. That’s the prism Serena should be seen in 2021.
As we saw in Melbourne, she still belongs at this level.
There are days she looks her vintage self, like against Halep in the quarter-final, and raises hope. There are days when she slugs it out, like in the fourth-round clash against Aryna Sabalenka, and it gives reason to keep fighting. Then there are days when she is a shadow of the player she was, like against Osaka in the semi-final.
But with all these days combined, Serena keeps getting up every time she stumbles and moves to the next fight – the basics of any sporting story, right? That she is already the record holder in women’s tennis makes this gruelling effort extraordinary. Just like the life of Serena Jameka Williams.