Twenty-three singles Major titles, one of them won while pregnant, a Grand Slam final after child-birth, a litany of doubles titles and Olympic gold, and still, she said, “I have a long way to go to win.” These were the words of Serena Williams following her 6-3, 6-4 win over World No 8 Karolina Pliskova at the quarter-finals of the US Open on Wednesday, in what was a revenge match after Pliskova had ousted Williams from the 2016 US Open.
Interestingly, Williams’ quarter-final win on Wednesday marked her 100th match at the Arthur Ashe Stadium — the venue of Williams’ first-ever Grand Slam singles title 19 years ago, in 1999 at the age of 18.
That year, Williams defeated then World No 1 Martina Hingis to take the first of what would be six US Open titles. Now, even with all her experience at what is her home Slam, with the crowd firmly behind their home champion, nay, queen, she has said repeatedly that she is not taking anything for granted. Having achieved as much as Williams might make anyone complacent and a fan may not even have blamed her for hanging up her racquet — after all, she has more than proved her status as the Greatest of All Time. But Williams is far from done.
In 2017, Williams played the Australian Open and won the title without dropping a set — and perhaps that might have been impressive enough, if not for the fact that at the time she was also two months pregnant with her now one-year-old daughter, Olympia. To come back from motherhood and achieve success is something only a small club of players has done, among them Evonne Goolagong, Kim Clijsters, Williams herself, her close friend and former World No 1 Victoria Azarenka, and record-holder Margaret Court. But none of them endured the life-threatening health scares that Williams did only a year ago.
Following a harrowing childbirth in September of last year, Williams suffered a pulmonary embolism which consequently caused the wound from her C-section to open up. That was when doctors found significant blood clots in her abdomen that ‘could have killed (her)’.
That also meant six weeks of Williams being bedridden, which, in athlete terms, could mean the difference between playing a tournament and not. For Williams, it was a matter of sheer survival. But Williams is no stranger to survival, or to a monumental comeback. In 2010, the American champion was sidelined for a year after a serious foot injury. Her 2012 return saw Williams win not only her fifth Wimbledon title, but singles and doubles gold at the London Olympics, and the US Open to cap off what can only be described as one of the greatest comebacks in sport.
In May this year, Williams won her first match back after the birth of her daughter Olympia, six months after the childbirth that left her unable to even walk to her mailbox. That win came at the grand stage of Indian Wells, where Williams’ two past titles came against Steffi Graf and Kim Clijsters.
Serena Williams at the US Open: the numbers
The US Open has been Williams’ most successful Slam — but then again, so has Wimbledon. Flushing Meadows might be more special to the player herself, however: it was the venue of her first-ever Grand Slam title, way back in 1999. That year, she beat already five-time Grand Slam winner Martina Hingis — the unstoppable World No 1, for her title — and summarily also took doubles honours with her sister Venus, the pair’s second Grand Slam title.
Williams has 23 Majors, surpassing last year the record she shared with Steffi Graf and setting a new Open Era record. Now, the American ace is on the cusp of tying the all-time record of Australia’s Margaret Court, who played before and during the Open Era. Given her current physical fitness, there is no reason to suggest she will not achieve the feat this year.
Between the Australian Open and the US Open, Williams has a staggering 13 hard-court Majors titles; to put that into perspective, Steffi Graf had nine, Martina Navratilova seven, and Martina Hingis four. Perhaps no other player has been as dominant on the surface, and Williams’ powerful serves are a punishing weapon on the outdoor hard courts of Flushing Meadows.
At Tier 1, or the WTA’s Premier Mandatory events — the highest level of women’s singles tennis before Majors — Williams has made 32 finals over her career. Of those 32 finals, 23 have been on hard courts — and of those 23 finals, Williams has won 16. That is a 70 percent win rate on hard court finals, and a 50 percent win rate on finals overall, which are significant statistics any way they are ‘served’ up — something Williams does all too well.
Outside of the WTA’s Premier events, Williams has made 60 hard court finals — of which she has lost only 14. A nearly 77 percent success rate on one surface is almost unheard of, and in the women’s game, no player has been as successful on a single surface as Williams has on hard courts.
The numbers show unequivocally that hard courts are Williams’ best surface, and by a significant degree.
To say that Williams has been an inspiration to a new generation of tennis players would be unnecessary; in fact, Williams has already faced on court many of the players who have cited her as their inspiration to play tennis — among them Madison Keys, Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, the reigning women’s singles champion at the US Open. But 2018 has seen Williams transform not just back into her GOAT avatar, but becoming a phenomenal agent for social change. Soon after the birth of her daughter, Williams penned an essay on the increasing gap in healthcare access for pregnant women around the world for UNICEF.
Williams has long been an inspiration for women — of colour and otherwise — and in the past year has singularly stepped up her advocacy of the cause, but social activism is perhaps not new for the star. For many years, she has worked extensively with the families of victims of gun violence, and in 2016, with sister Venus, set up the Yetunde Price Resource Center, named in honour of their older sister, who was shot dead in September 2003. Williams is also a longtime UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
Williams has this year already effected significant change in terms of the rules for new mothers returning to the circuit, who will now receive a protected ranking for eight events after childbirth.
This year, Williams’ French Open appearance — her first Grand Slam since the birth of her child, was watched closely by fans, and the American progressed to Round 4 of the tournament having dropped only a set. Williams donned an all-black catsuit to the tournament, and said it made her feel “powerful, like a superhero when I wear it, like a Queen from Wakand” — and perhaps nobody deserves the title of superhero, or Queen, on the tennis court more than Williams.
But one person, it may seem, watched her a bit too closely, and that was French Open tournament director Bernard Giudicelli, who banned her Black Panther-inspired catsuit from “all future tournaments”, saying she “…(had) to respect the game and the place.”
This was devoid of a clarification of why her outfit was deemed ‘disrespectful’, and completely glossed over the fact that it had been designed to help Williams mitigate blood clots in her legs and prevent them from recurring.
In response, Nike, who designed the outfit for the tennis star, replied with a succinct rejoinder: “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can’t take away her superpowers.”
The Williams of old may have issued a sarcastic rejoinder to Giudicelli, or even an incensed one. But at her match this week, her response was subtle, but firm nevertheless — an appearance in a periwinkle, tulle tutu; the greatest, bar none. And with it came a fight back from a 2-4 deficit in the first to a straight sets win.
Now, she faces Anastasija Sevastova, who crafted the exit of defending champion Sloane Stephens. But Williams is perhaps the unlikeliest candidate to feel intimidated. Now on the cusp of her 24th Grand Slam Majors title, Williams has nothing left to prove in terms of being the greatest. It is this, perhaps, that gives her a lot of her confidence — insecurity is no longer a word in Williams’ lexicon, or perhaps it never has been.
Through injuries, childbirth, near-death experiences and even now, dealing openly with post-partum depression, Williams has pushed forward in a way only Williams can. Nevertheless, she persists.
Where there’s a Williams, there’s always a way.