Australian Open season is well and truly upon us, and already the bets are off. Serena Williams, GOAT extraordinaire, has started off the season with a title at the Auckland Classic, ahead of the hard court Grand Slam. This time, there are no injuries to recover from, no down season.
Make no mistake, this is no struggling player, nor one who has had to fight for results. Playing her Slams as strategically as possible, Serena has consistently had good finishes in the tournaments that she has chosen to play.
At 38 and with 23 Grand Slams behind her, perhaps the battle is as physical as it is mental. In the past year, the former No 1 has had to deal with a knee injury, a back injury, and perhaps a bruised ego, having made five finals but been unable to convert them into title wins.
But this week, Serena was nothing if not decisive. The frustrated and angry Serena made way for a calm and composed player, looking for a title.
Indeed, Serena has played it so strategically over the past few years that many have not even realised just how long it has been since she won a title. Choosing her tournaments tactically has meant that her deep runs have gone unnoticed, perhaps. That, or the fact that she has made so many Grand Slam finals since coming back from having her daughter, has meant that it has been difficult to fathom that she has not won a title in three years.
There were never any doubts, neither for fans, nor for Williams herself, that her physical ability to win a title was still intact. But over the past few years, it truly had seemed as though something mentally was holding her back, preventing her from going the final inch over the finish line. We saw it against Simona Halep and against Naomi Osaka. Perhaps Serena's biggest rival, over the past couple of years, has been her own mind. And with each mounting loss, that enemy, and that mental block, became tougher than before.
However, throughout the Auckland Classic, and particularly during the finals, Williams was the veritable picture of calm and poise; even her trademark energetic entry onto the court in her final against American Jessica Pegula was a quiet one — Williams surveying the stands and looking out upon the crowds.
The win marked her 73rd title on the WTA circuit, and is meaningful in ways unrelated to a trophy, or prize money — they have given her the confidence and belief going into the Australian Open.
Psychological defeat, particularly self-induced, has always been Williams’ Achilles heel, whilst somehow also being her biggest weapon. Particularly in the wake of her US Open final loss last year, this is something the American was open about, saying in an interview that she had begun therapy following the match against Osaka. For Williams, comes also the added burden of immense scrutiny of any reaction she may have on the court, with fans and watchers all too eager to label her for any outbursts.
In an interview following that loss, Williams said she had not even “felt ready to pick up a racquet.” In contrast, she looked collected, at peace, and ready to win in Auckland.
Funnily enough, a decade ago, when a then 28-year-old Serena had won her fourth Wimbledon title, a reporter had asked her if she would still be playing in a decade. That interaction had gone a little something like this:
Reporter: Is there a chance you'll still be playing at 38, do you think?
Serena: If I am, I want you to personally take me off and escort me off the court. There's no way I need to be out here at 38.
Cut to 2020, and Serena has defeated countless opponents, a coma, depression, a number of surgeries, and a three-time drop out of the top 100, only to come back as the eighth seed to play the Australian Open yet again, a tournament she last won in the first trimester of pregnancy.
If anyone summed up how high the emotions ran during this title and just how meaningful it is to a champion looking to break the biggest record of them all, it is perhaps Serena herself. As she shook Pegula’s hand following the straight-sets win, a jubilant Serena had just one word - “Finally.”
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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2020 12:32:35 IST