Serena: Still Awesome After All These Years

International Blog – Michael Dickens

Serena Williams carried both the ASB Classic trophy and her daughter, Olympia, off the court after winning her first tournament in three years Sunday evening in Auckland, New Zealand. Both mother and daughter were in a happy mood.

When the No. 10-ranked Williams beat fellow American Jessica Pegula, 6-3, 6-4, finishing the victory with a backhand winner down the line, the greatest female professional tennis player of all time physically expressed how much this long-awaited moment meant to her.

Williams raised her arms in the air, looked toward the sky above her and let out a big roar.

The ASB Classic represented Williams’ first tournament title since returning from maternity leave after giving birth to her daughter in 2017 – and it marked the fourth decade (1990s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s) in which she has won a tournament. While she’ll never catch Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova’s Open-era record of 167 singles titles, surpassing Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slams remains a distinct possibility.

After Williams shook Pegula’s hand at the end of the match, if one looked closely, the 38-year-old could be seen mouthing the word “finally.” The three-year title drought had finally ended for Williams, who recently was named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Decade.

It’s been three years since last Grand Slam title

It’s been a long time since Williams lifted her first pro trophy. That came back in 1999 at an indoor event in Paris. It’s also been a long time since she last won a tournament before Sunday’s milestone in Auckland. One has to go back three years to January 2017 inside Rod Laver Arena, when she won the Australian Open for the seventh time. Unbeknown to most, she was two months pregnant when she won her 23rd career Grand Slam singles title. Fast forward to now and Williams remains stuck on 23 as she goes after tying Court’s mark of 24 Grand Slams at this year’s Australian Open.

The year’s first Grand Slam begins Monday in Melbourne amid blurred skies coming from the blazing bushfires that have permeated much of southeastern Australia in the heat of summer and created health concerns for both players and fans.

After taking six months off following the birth of Olympia, Williams returned to the WTA Tour in early 2018, but has struggled in her quest to win another Grand Slam while reaching five tournament finals. She’s lost the last two Wimbledon finals – to Angelique Kerber in 2018 and Simona Halep in 2019 – and also has lost two straight US Open finals. First came the controversial loss against Naomi Osaka in 2018. Then, she was outplayed by Bianca Andreescu in 2019. Williams did not win a set in any of those four finals. A variety of ailments and injuries have nagged her, too. She retired in tears against Andreescu during the first set of last year’s Rogers Cup final after suffering back spasms, and earlier in the year was knocked out of the Australian Open when she rolled her ankle on match point, ahead 5-1 in the third set against Karolina Pliskova, before losing the quarterfinal match.

Throughout her career, Williams has been driven by her defeats and setbacks. All the way back in 2013, in an AP interview, she said, “Whenever I lose, I get more determined, and it gives me something more to word toward.

“I don’t get complacent, and I realize I need to work harder and I need to do better and I want to do better – or I wouldn’t be playing the game.”

Serena still has the tools to consistently win

Throughout her resilient 20-year pro career, Williams has been the dominant figure in women’s tennis by winning 73 WTA titles. Remarkably, she still has the tools to consistently win against younger opponents. Williams knows how to combine power with grace, which she did against the 25-year-old Pegula, who was just four years-old when Serena won her first Grand Slam in 1998.

“It feels good,” Williams expressed on Sunday following her victory. “It’s been a long time. I’ve been waiting two years for this moment. I think you could see the relief on my face.”

Although Williams fell behind early in the match, she worked through her shortcomings and recovered nicely against the 84th-ranked Pegula, who won the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. last summer for her only WTA tour-level title.

You have to be your biggest cheerleader, especially if you’re feeling you’re not doing everything right – or even if you are doing everything right, but things aren’t working out for you,” the top-seeded Williams said after finishing the week 5-0 in Auckland, which included victories over Camila Giorgi, Christina McHale, Laura Siegemund and 24th-ranked Amanda Anisimova (seeded third) before beating Pegula in the one-hour and 36-minute final.

Afterward, Williams donated her entire $43,000 prize money to the Australian bushfire relief fund and revealed plans for all nine of the tennis dresses she wore in Auckland to be auctioned.

Before leaving for Melbourne to begin pursuit of her eighth Australian Open singles title, Williams put the moment of her latest triumph into perspective. She said: “It’s pretty satisfying just to get a win in the final.

“That was really important for me – and I just want to build on it. It’s just a step towards the next goal.”