Wimbledon 2018: Can new mother Serena Williams get back to her dominant best at The Championships?

The pre-tournament talk for Serena Williams’ return to Wimbledon has, so far, revolved around whether or not she should be seeded. While Wimbledon quashed any further debate by naming her the 25th seed, all of it might just be rendered unnecessary if the mood strikes her. Wherever she is placed in the pecking order, Williams is the woman to beat at every tournament she enters.

And 2018 Wimbledon won’t be any different. Even though she will now be representing another rare group in elite sport: mothers.

The women’s game has enjoyed a sort of happy disorder since Williams stepped away from the game due to pregnancy and motherhood. Since her Australian Open triumph in 2017, which she scripted in the first trimester of her pregnancy, five different women have won the five Grand Slam titles. Of that, four were first-time major winners.

 Wimbledon 2018: Can new mother Serena Williams get back to her dominant best at The Championships?

Wherever she is placed in the pecking order, Serena Williams is the woman to beat at every tournament she enters. Artwork by Rajan Gaikwad

Having given birth to a baby girl in September, Williams returned to the tour in March 2018 at the Indian Wells Masters. Obviously, she is still feeling her way back into the game after a difficult childbirth. The seven-time Wimbledon champion has lodged a modest 5-2 win-loss record since coming back on tour. But Williams showed that motherhood has not made her a softer competitor.

At last month’s French Open, she had coolly walked out on Court Philippe Chatrier clad in a bold, black, body-hugging catsuit. If that was not eye-catching enough, the power and precision in her game certainly were. Williams is far from her peak fitness and was moving considerably slower around the court. But she was rarely out of position or the hitting zone. Standing strong at the baseline, Williams moved her opponents around expertly, most times dictating the pace and tempo of the rally. She defeated world No 17 Ashleigh Barty and world No 11 Julia Goerges to march into the Round of 16. The American though pulled out of the high-profile fourth round against Maria Sharapova with a pectoral injury.

“I’m an incredible mental player, but I’m also a physical player,” Williams said in a recent interview with InStyle magazine. “You can’t play a sport without being physically ready. It’s difficult to come back as a professional athlete who was once ‘Serena’.”

There is a lot of baggage that comes with it. Starting with the US Open in 1999, which she won at the age of 17, Williams has amassed a record 23 Grand Slam titles. While she left behind Steffi Graf (22 majors) as the most successful player in the Open Era, Williams is aiming to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 singles titles at Wimbledon.

“There are records out there that I want, and I’ll get there, but in due time,” she was quoted as saying in the interview. “I’m always in the fast lane. I’m always extra. I have to be willing to do the work, and I have been. Because, to be honest, I feel pressure to be Serena. But these days I keep telling myself I don’t have to be anything. This is for me.”

Williams was only little when she started following her older sister Venus Williams to the tennis courts, which in the tough neighbourhood of Compton, Florida was sometimes littered with broken glass bottles. “If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that's concentration,” Serena Williams had once said. Their father Richard, though not a professional tennis player, took it upon himself to mould the Williams sisters into not just good tennis players, but two of the best in the world.

In Venus, Serena didn’t just have a great sparring partner but a role model for excellence. Venus, older to Serena by 15 months, was the first to shake things up in a majority white sport when she made the final of the US Open on her debut at the home Slam. Tall and graceful, Venus stunned the world with their unique brand of power tennis. But it was the younger sister who majored first, defeating world No 1 Martina Hingis in the US Open final. Serena Williams became the first African-American woman since Althea Gibson in 1958 to win a singles Grand Slam title.

She has won pretty much everything in the sport since. She won her first ‘Serena Slam’ – where she held all four Slams at a time, starting with the 2002 French Open — in 2003. There were times when Williams was not in the mood for tennis and dabbled in pursuits like fashion and the silver screen.

But her overwhelming game and incredible drive meant she won on the tennis court whatever she set her heart to. Williams’ success was intermittent, but the distractions early in her career meant she wasn’t mentally as burnt out. It was in 2012, however, that Williams shifted her focus from being the most dominating player of her generation to the best ever. She hired French coach Patrick Mouratoglou to guide her down the path.

A hungrier Williams, punctuating her power strokes with guttural grunts, was a sight to behold. There was no corner she could not fight herself out of. More than a decade after her first, Williams completed her second ‘Serena Slam’ with wins at the 2014 US Open and 2015 Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. In 2017, with her pregnancy unbeknown to the world, she blitzed to the Australian Open title, and past Graf’s record, without dropping a set.

She left the stage ranked No 1 in the world, but is currently placed at 183 in the WTA rankings. Keeping in mind the seven singles titles she won at Wimbledon, the Grand Slam, the only one which allows for some elbow room in the seeding process, decided to give her the 25th seeding.  At Wimbledon this year, it will be interesting to see whether the new mother can deliver on those old expectations.

Updated Date: Jun 28, 2018 20:04:11 IST