For the unsinkable Serena Williams, the last step is proving the hardest
Eight years ago, the documentary Venus and Serena followed the Williams sisters as they tried to survive the nadir of their careers. Venus prepared to do battle with Sjogren’s syndrome, while Serena plotted her way back from the first pulmonary embolism that had nearly killed her. During a quiet moment of the documentary, a quick break in the middle of practice, Serena noted to no one in particular that she had returned to the top 10 of the rankings. Isha, her sister, frowned and then responded with the question that has consumed all followers of the sport for 21 years: “Girl, how can you and Venus keep in the top 10 and y’all never play?”
The question remains unanswered. This week, Williams returned to the top 10 for the second time this year, one year after her first grand slam competition following maternity leave. It is absurd. She has completed only one tournament in 2019, the Australian Open, withdrawing after one match in her last three events. Over the past 52 weeks, she has only completed five events. For much of her career, she loomed as large over the tour in her absence as when she was there, but now her absence seems normal. The sport goes on.
For any other player in history, returning to the top 10 from a life-threatening childbirth at 37 years old would be hailed as the singular miracle it is. The journey is even more impressive. Williams returned in March 2018 as a shadow of herself. Her footwork was non-existent. She could barely find the middle of her strings. Serena has played many bad matches in her career, but it was jarring to conclude that her horrendous play was her actual level, not just her form. She was bundled out of successive tournaments by older sister Venus and her younger imitator Naomi Osaka. Neither match was close.
Serena strode from the courts and straight out of the Miami Open after her loss to Osaka, foregoing press and most human interaction. The HBO docuseries Being Serena chronicled the aftermath of that tournament, as she withdrew from subsequent events and desperately tried to shed her baby weight. She agonized over the decision to stop breastfeeding her daughter, at one point sitting down for a meeting with her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who barked two words at her, loud and clear: “Stop. Breastfeeding.” In tears, Serena fumbled as she tried to explain the difficulty of returning her postnatal body to full fitness.
It was important to see a Serena unrecognizable from the warrior on the court, and to understand the effort it has taken for her to return. This was always going to be the toughest challenge of her career and that is all it has been. It wasn’t until she made her slam return at Roland Garros one year ago that she finally awoke, roaring back from a set and a break down to Ashleigh Barty. By the end of the summer, Serena had reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open.
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Despite the sparsity of her recent appearances, they have included some Williams’ most traumatic losses of her career. In the US Open final, Williams received a game penalty and then cried as victory slipped from her. No match in recent decades has been so uncomfortably thrust into public debate. In this year’s Australian Open, Serena led 5-1 in the third set of her quarter-final against Karolina Pliskova. On match point and seemingly cruising to victory, she foot faulted and then twisted her ankle during the point. Completely shaken, she lost six games in a row and failed to win another point on her serve. Serena departed with her head bowed and the crowd stunned.
Williams turns 38 in September. Time will eventually catch up with her. Her recent injury issues seem to make this clear, as does the additional step she seems to have lost in her movement. But her issues are mental more than physical. Age is often presented as a mental asset for an athlete and experience can help to navigate matches, but you can know too much. The pain of defeat can be too familiar.
Her additional nerves have been conspicuous in big matches for a while now. For the first 21 years of her career she was 21-4 in slam finals, but in the past three now she is 2-4. After her loss to Pliskova, Serena asserted that she needed to remember how to “go psycho” and “bananas” in the biggest moments of future matches, to never hold back again. That she needed to say it aloud really speaks volumes – on the tennis court, being psycho is normally her essence.
The other players are watching, and they are emboldened. Though they accept that she is a much better tennis player, they have far too much self-respect to fear someone who is as human as the next name in the draw: “She has all the respect from me, but I can beat her, so I’m not worried about her,” Pliskova told the New York Times before their US Open clash last year. “She has a big game, but sometimes she behaves bigger than her game is.”
Think back to Venus and Serena – back when Serena was still on 13 slams. She was already an all-time great, but she was without the baggage of trying to become the all-time great. She was already exhaustingly famous, but she hadn’t danced in a Beyoncé video, presented at the Oscars or become the cultural institution that sometimes seems so suffocating today. She always had to deal with obscene amounts of pressure and significance that people insisted on attaching to her wins, but she still seemed to savor her wins for what they were. Now she usually refers to her slams in their numerical form, all part of a wider narrative with the end goal always on the mind.
The next slam for Serena Williams is 24 – the number of Margaret Court’s overall slam record. It’s hard to imagine that she won’t get there, but it’s fair to wonder what chasing this level of greatness does to your perspective when nothing but victory is acceptable. During a quiet practice on a court somewhere this week, one can hope that, eight years on, she is still able to tell nobody in particular that she is back in the top 10, and to recognize an achievement that may not be what she is chasing but is still valid and good.