Wimbledon 2018: Serena Williams—seven-time champion, and more serene than ever
Serena Williams is bidding to win Wimbledon for the eighth time in her career over the next two weeks
Serena Williams may have become a mother just 10 months ago.
She may have come through numerous complications after the birth of her daughter—and she has contended with life-threatening blood clots before.
She may have played her part on the WTA Players Council for years—even if she has now handed over the reins to newer hands.
She may currently be ranked 181 in the world and have just seven matches under her belt from just three tournaments this year.
Yet it is testament to the character, talent and determination of the woman that she is still many pundits’ choice for the title at Wimbledon in what is proving to be a wide-open field of contenders.
The 128-woman draw contains 13 Major champions, five of whom have won the Wimbledon title. It contains nine former or current No1s. There are seven more who have arrived at Wimbledon with at least a grass final to their name this summer.
Yet the woman who reached 319 weeks at No1 little more than a year ago—the oldest woman to do so—who won her 23rd Major only 18 months ago—while already two months pregnant—and won the title here in her last two visits would, it seems, surprise few if she were to take the All England Club by storm again.
It would, by any measure, be a remarkable achievement, and all the more so because this is a special year for the woman who will be 37 come September.
It is exactly 20 years ago that a 16-year-old Serena made her debut in the main draw at the All England Club. It was the first year she had played any Majors, and she not only won her first match in Australia, she made the fourth round in Paris, and the third round in both Wimbledon and the US Open. Not a bad start for the teenager.
Reminded of the anniversary, she grinned broadly—a feature of what proved to be a long, eloquent and cheerful press conference.
“Was it 20 years ago? Wow!”
Did she expect her career to be so long?
“Absolutely not… When you’re so young, you just think, ‘This is great, I’m going to be here—everyone retires at 26, 27, 28, maybe 30.
“But I don’t know, things have changed. I think technology really plays a big part in that, education, people knowing how to take care of their body… We see athletes across all sports playing a lot longer. So I definitely can’t say that I expected that. But 20 years ago. Did I win the mixed that year?”
She is absolutely right: She won that title with Max Mirnyi, and went on to do the same at the US Open and then reach the final at the Australian Open. She would also win six women’s doubles Wimbledon titles with her sister—and another eight at the other Majors.
There was considerable debate before the tournament about whether this prolific champion would be granted a discretionary place in the seedings—allowed by the AELTC in order to ‘achieve a balanced draw’—and she duly was, at No25.
It is worth remembering, of course, that she was ranked No1 when she went on maternity leave, but the rules have yet to be written that cater for Williams’ circumstances. So it was a bold move to break with tradition and not just give her a place in the draw via the protected ranking system but to effectively displace the No32 seed to give Williams a boost on her return to Wimbledon’s grass.
And she is very grateful.
“I came in here expecting that maybe I wouldn’t get a seed. I do know Wimbledon tends to beat to their own drum. It was a little bit in the back of my mind, that I would have a chance… I thought it was very, very noble and cool.”
She went on to reassure about her physical shape, for she had been forced to pull out of the French Open after three good wins due to a pectoral injury—but admitted:
“I didn’t serve actually till I got here, to be honest. Still I’m debating if I should go 120mph or whatever. I haven’t yet. But it’s been good.
“So I took almost three weeks from serving completely, just doing an incredible amount of rehabilitation for my shoulder, like twice a day, so much work. I don’t think I’ve ever done that much consistently back-to-back rehab for something.
So physically, she is confident, and she went on to confirm that, once she stopped breast-feeding earlier this summer, everything fell into place far more easily than she had anticipated. And emotionally, she looks in better shape than ever. Indeed, motherhood clearly suits her down to the ground. It was clear in Paris, and it is clear here. She is one happy woman, and a happy woman who has also had her competitive fires fanned by her absence.
“I thought it would be different. I thought, ‘Hey, I have this amazing child, I have all these Grand Slams, this is all super bonus,’ and it is. I definitely feel a lot less pressure out there, but I am a little bit shocked at how much I almost want that pressure. You know, I almost want to feel the need to go out there and be the best that I can be.”
It is, though, when she talks of her daughter that the fire becomes a warm glow. She had, she said taken Alexis Olympia to see Centre Court, almost as a pilgrimage:
“I got a little emotional when I was telling her a story about a girl who had a big dream. I started getting choked up. I never felt that before, you know. Just taking that moment and having the opportunity to share it with my daughter and my future. It was more than I expected.
“I didn’t expect to suddenly get emotional. We’ll always have that. We’ll always have that memory. We’ll always have that footage of her.
“I’ve been to the other Grand Slams, but I never actually brought her on-site. This was the first one. Obviously, it was really special for me. I wanted it to be special for her, too.”
Only three women have returned as mothers to win more Majors: Margaret Court, Evonne Cawley, and Kim Clijsters, who won the 2009 US Open after just two tournaments back on the tour. But none of them was the age of Williams, who already holds the record as the oldest Open era winner of the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles.
Yet who would bet against her equalling the all-time record of Court—Williams needs must one more Major—and who would bet against her doing it at Wimbledon? It is hard to imagine her smile getting any broader than it has been this year—but it just might do before 2018 is done.