There are times when Serena Williams seems like a slow, overweight, arrogant champion whose only recourse is to slam her opponents into submission with brute power.
But then, there are times, like yesterday, when we see a very different, vulnerable side of Serena. The 27-time Grand Slam winner broke down and cried after her first-round 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over Aravane Rezai of France. It was strangely unnerving to watch — it was ONLY the first round after all. Yet, it also managed to touch a chord among all those watching.
Somehow, you expect your champions to be strong, perhaps even unbreakable. Serena, even more than others, has been one of the great champions of modern tennis. When she’s playing in a tournament, it doesn’t matter how long she hasn’t played or how unfit she looks, the American is immediately listed as one of the favourites. That is the aura she has; the aura she has created.
But as she made her way back to her chair after the match against Rezai, Serena couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. They were big, heaving sobs as she buried her head in the towel that stunned the crowd into silence and for once made us realise how much the game really means to this 29-year-old.
“I just wanted to win one match here, seeing as I’m not playing doubles,” she said during a post-match interview with the BBC. “I didn’t expect to play. I didn’t expect to do anything. I never cried with joy for anything. But this is Wimbledon.”
She has been out of the game for long periods before. But each time, it seemed temporary. Somehow, this time, her 11-month absence had a permanent feel to it.
The accident in a Munich restaurant right after winning last year’s Wimbledon, the one that caused a nasty cut on her foot, which led to other complications including hematomas on her lungs ended up costing her a year of her tennis career – it could very well have cost her life.
But she wanted to be back. And often with great champions, it is the will to succeed that overpowers every other emotion. The American trainer Mackie Shilstone, who whipped her into condition with a 21-day training program in Florida before her arrival in London last week, was astonished by her drive.
“That would be enough to put any athlete over the deep end,” Shilstone said about his sessions with Williams this month. “But she is so mentally strong. I haven’t run into a male athlete as mentally strong.”
“It’s her mental discipline and her fortitude that she pulls from that I just don’t see out there. She would put football players to shame. Football players all think they are tough because they are in a collision sport, but I don’t think they hold a candle to Serena Williams because they are too pampered. Serena Williams was never pampered.”
But yesterday, the player who had once been called “deluded” by former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash when she said she planned to be number one again, seemed like a child who had found her favourite toy and was relieved to see it wasn’t broken.
Her game still works fine and in a women’s field, that lacks any great champions, it’s difficult to rule her out — 11-month absence or not. It’s great to see her back and even though there might be life beyond tennis, nothing seems to match the sheer joie de vivre of Serena’s muscular arms powerfully smashing the ball.
As much as she missed the game, it can be safely said, the game missed her as well.