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.
Source: Reem Abulleil