Serena Williams is a member of the old guard. The old guard is cautious with its words.
This club doesn’t discuss injuries.
It can disappear and have a life removed from social media. It can appear almost mythological to both peers and fans. It is wiser and more prudent on how it spends energy.
It can play with the love and pressure of tennis coexisting in a match, hanging over the court. Yet, just as the new guard reminds with its comparative failures, accomplishing one’s ultimate goal is an exhaustive task.
Reaching 24 and extending the Open Era record will take all Serena has to give.
All preparation must be perfect. The excitement that Serena had for Wimbledon this year was palpable. She stated she finally felt healthy after being unable to fully practice until a few weeks before the big event.
Accompanied by a signature Nike outfit that made a statement, she eased herself into a form that looked formidable. Going into the final she had won 75% of her points in four shots or fewer. Another type of test awaited in the final: Simona Halep.
Halep, coming into the final, was fourth on the list for most return points won. According to WTA Media Notes, Halep had also run almost 12,000 meters in her quest to become the first Romanian to win Wimbledon. (Ilie Nastase made the 1972 men’s final but did not win the championship. Stan Smith defeated him.)
In the end, Halep’s almost perfect play proved steadier than Serena’s abilities in this comeback.
When someone of Serena’s stature loses it seems like a million reasons can explain the explicable. The main one this time being Serena needs more matches under her belt.
I was curious: Under what circumstances did any of the previous mothers who have won major titles in the Open Era (Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley) return to for their winning major?
Court was number one and the best player of the year at age 31 when she won her last majors in 1973, taking three of the four that year . Goolagong Cawley’s late-career run in 1980 was more similar to Serena’s in that she had dealt with burdensome injuries and returned to the tour only seven weeks before she won her last Wimbledon.
So it seems that Serena will once again have to trailblaze a new path for this record. The only question that remains: Will her body and opponents cooperate with her dreams?
Let’s spend a little time with that last detail: the opponents.
Stop and realize how similar Serena’s 2018 and 2019 Wimbledons were. Also stop and realize how little Serena’s major semifinal opponents prepared her for the subsequent major finals she lost.
Serena’s 2018 Wimbledon involved a possibly difficult third-round match against Kristina Mladenovic which did become a test. Her 2019 Wimbledon against Julia Goerges provided a similarly threatening opponent, but the Goerges match did not become nearly as contentious as the Mladenovic match a year earlier.
Otherwise, my goodness: The Wimbledon paths of 2018 and 2019 looked very similar.
2018 fourth round: Evgeniya Rodina. 2019 fourth round: Carla Suarez-Navarro. Two very manageable opponents.
2018 quarterfinals: Camila Giorgi, playing her first major quarterfinal ever. 2019 quarterfinals: Alison Riske, playing her first major quarterfinal ever. Tough battles in each match, but Serena had a lot of experience to call upon in the latter stages.
2018 semifinals: Goerges, a veteran in her first major semifinal. 2019 semifinals: Barbora Strycova, a veteran in her first major semifinal. Quality players, but utterly unaccustomed to the occasion.
In 2018 at Wimbledon, Rodina-Giorgi-Goerges left Serena underprepared for a counterpunching major champion with a relatively complete game in the final, Angelique Kerber.
In 2019 at Wimbledon, CSN-Riske-Strycova left Serena underprepared for a counterpunching major champion with a relatively complete game in the final, Simona Halep.
Even at the 2018 U.S. Open, Serena played Anastasija Sevastova in the semis. Sevastova is clever and crafty and played well at that tournament in New York, but still: Serena significantly outgunned her in ways which offered no preparation for Naomi Osaka’s complete game in the final.
Serena has had great draws in second weeks of majors when making her three most recent major finals. It’s hard for any athlete or analyst to stop and say, “Gee, she has played favorable opponents at majors — that’s bad.” Players want to win and advance, and to not spend too much time on court.
Yet, it seems Serena could certainly benefit from a tougher test in major semifinals.
It’s a new world for Serena, as Court and Goolagong could tell you.