Serena Williams’ comeback to tennis after the birth of her first child could be considered double-edged.
On one hand, she has been brilliant in advancing to four Grand Slam finals in less than two years back on tour. On the other, she has uncharacteristically lost all four of those finals without winning a set.
Inextricably linked to her performances in those finals has been the weighty presence of an even bigger, transcendent storyline – should she win another major tournament, she would equal the all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
Williams has remained on 23 ever since she won Australian Open 2017, while two months pregnant with baby Alexis Olympia.
At Wimbledon in 2018, Williams accepted her loss in the final to Angelique Kerber, encouraged simply to have gone that deep in a Slam so soon after returning. She quickly moved on from her anomalous US Open final defeat to Naomi Osaka that same year, while at Wimbledon 2019 she tipped her hat to Simona Halep, saying the Romanian was simply too good – although she added: “I just have to figure out a way to win a final.”
But by this year’s US Open, Serena had had enough.
She was far blunter when assessing her 6-3 7-5 loss to Bianca Andreescu; losing four major finals in a row was simply unacceptable.
“I love Bianca. I think she’s a great girl. But I think this was the worst match I’ve played all tournament … I don’t even know what to say,” she said.
“I was thinking, OK, Serena, you lost serve maybe twice in the whole tournament, and you didn’t hit a first serve in today. Like how do I play at a level like this in a final?
“Bianca obviously played well. I think her returns make me play better and puts pressure on my serve. At the same time it’s inexcusable for me to play at that level.
“I believe I could have just been more Serena today. I honestly don’t think Serena showed up.
“I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slam finals.”
Australian doubles champion Todd Woodbridge recognised that such finals were now becoming a mental block for Williams.
In August, he told Tennismash that she appeared to “forcing” when she took to the court for big matches, rather than playing instinctively. Physical tension was present in her body, possibly contributing to the back spasms she suffered in the Toronto final and that forced her to retire early in the first set.
Her subsequent setback at the US Open will not have helped.
“I feel that mentally she’s put so much into trying to get this done. She’s worked hard, thrown everything at it, and fallen on that final hurdle,” Woodbridge said.
“That’s why I say she actually has to let it happen. Because she used to just dominate instinctively. But you can see now that there’s a real nervousness – as soon as she walks out onto the court, the tension that she carries is visible.
“Opponents actually automatically relax when they see that from her.”
However, Woodbridge believes Melbourne Park represents Serena’s best chance to finally claim the milestone she is targeting – if she finds the key to release the pressure valve.
“I think this surface at the Australian Open has always been a nice pace for her. I think it’s the better surface. The US Open can sometimes be a bit hard and bit fast – it gets onto her. And if somebody does attack her, she doesn’t necessarily like that,” he assessed.
“Here there is a little bit more time on the ball for her, just to set up and load. She always serves well anyway.
“(She needs to) actually find a way to take that pressure off herself. Instead of saying to herself, gee, good job, I’ve done well, congratulate herself, and think anything from here’s a bonus, she naturally wants it so much, but that isn’t working.
“So she has to change the approach to that.”
Throughout her lengthy Australian Open history, dating back to her first appearance in 1998 as a 16-year-old, Williams has shown an incredible ability to bounce back from adversity.
She saved multiple match points against Maria Sharapova in the 2005 semifinals and went on to beat Lindsay Davenport in the final after not having won a major title for two years.
In 2007, she arrived unseeded, underprepared and ranked outside the top 80, yet stormed to the unlikeliest of victories.
Svetlana Kuznetsova served for the match in their 2009 quarterfinal. Victoria Azarenka led 6-4 4-0 in their 2010 quarterfinal. Both times Serena staged an almighty recovery, before going on to win the whole tournament.
A tournament victory in 2020? That would perhaps mark her greatest comeback of all.
Source: Matt Trollope