INDIAN WELLS, CA—
Tennis is a mosaic of breakthrough moments and stirring comebacks. Boris Becker emerged to capture Wimbledon in 1985. Rod Laver, who was banned from tennis for a decade, stormed back to win the Grand Slam. Martina Navratilova, who fled Czechoslovakia, returned to play Fed Cup in Prague. But no other player has had more dramatic breakthroughs, setbacks and comebacks than the woman who is said to live on the edge of a volcano.
At age 17, Serena Williams leapfrogged over her older sister to win the US Open. In 2011, she came back from battling an aneurysm that almost took her life. After a breakup with her NFL boyfriend, Lavar Arrington, the jilted lover focused her rage and won six straight majors.
Following a humbling loss in the first round of the 2012 French Open, she teamed up with coach Patrick Mouratoglou and won four of the next six Slams. And in 2015, she finally ended her 14-year boycott of the BNP Paribas Open.
Fierce foes, serious diseases, romantic heartbreaks, unhappy histories and wretched losses – tennis’ wonder woman has overcome every possible obstacle.
But even NFL great Joe Namath faltered late in his career. When aging Willie Mays went off to the New York Mets he was a shell of his once great self. And, oh so sadly, Muhammad Ali was an over-the-hill figure in his tragic twilight.
So the conventional wisdom screamed loud – “No way!” A 36-year-old coming back to the grueling world of pro tennis just six months after a dangerous childbirth (which included an emergency cesarean section and a pulmonary embolism) was just too big an ask for anyone – even Serena…Right?
Then again, it’s said you should never underestimate a Williams. Last year Venus reached two Slam finals. As for Serena, dismiss her as a red-carpet diva or a social media darling at your own risk. The truth is that there is simply no one in sports who has more passion, ferocity or love of the battle than the Pride of Compton.
So at 7:58 pm Serena again stepped out on Indian Wells’ massive Stadium 1 court. Amazingly, the no-nonsense competitor with the world class game face cracked a smile. The elated crowd howled. Aziz Rubakovic from nearby Osage Trail Road called out, “You’re my Queen, Serena!” He then told IT, “We have to do all we can to make her feel welcome and let her know this is her home.” “This isn’t a tennis match,” contended James Blake. “It’s an international event.”
All the while, a question came to mind. What was more amazing: that just seven months after a harrowing childbirth experience Williams was back on court? Or that 17 years after an Indian Wells crowd hooted at the then 19-year-old Serena for over two hours, tonight’s adoring crowd gave her a rousing, “We love you!” standing ovation?
From the outset, it was abundantly clear this wasn’t the old Serena, who routinely dismantled lowly opponents with unblinking ferocity. Never mind that in the past, Williams had beaten the No. 53 player in the world, Zarina Diyas, with ease. Tonight, mother Serena was slower and less explosive than before. She failed to pounce. She botched easy volleys. Her backhands flew wide. Unhappy forehands found the bottom of the net. She couldn’t convert on any of her four breakpoints in the fifth game of the opening set.
One exchange said it all. Diyas hit an adept drop shot, which brought the lumbering Williams in. A fine lob from the Kazakh then forced Williams back and she finished off the Greatest Player of All Time with a simple forehand to a wide open court.
Throughout the long first set, a tension gripped the patriotic crowd: when would the last American woman to win this title shake off the rust and get into gear?
Finally, in the tenth game of the first set, we saw some Serena sizzle: a laser backhand return of serve, a wicked cross-court forehand and a down-the-line backhand that broke Diyas.
Serena promptly captured the first set and quickly broke to take an early second-set lead. But Serena doesn’t do ‘easy’ so well. She was broken twice, but at last imposed that lean-in power of hers that distinguishes her from all the rest, as she won 7-5, 6-3 in 1:33.
Afterwards, in the pressroom, she emanated a glowing maternal radiance and beauty, and offered many an insight. She admitted she was surprised by all the errors, but noted that she had been training hard, so her stamina was good. But due to her lack of match play her timing was off, and she failed to make “the key shots that I make nine out of ten times. But, I went in there expecting that I won’t be where I want to be…It takes time.”
Serena confided that she was “playing with nothing to lose…It is a real joy to be out here. Sometimes I think about those moments I was in the hospital and not realizing how serious it was…I know [now] that I’m capable of being strong…There’s so much more to my life…I’m just glad to be on the grounds of a tournament. It’s fun…I’m just going with the flow. I’m going to make mistakes…I was thinking from zero to Serena, I’m probably just with the ‘S.’ I have a little ways to go. It’s a journey…”
Mother Serena added, “I almost cried before the match. I texted Alexis, ‘Is it normal that I want to cry?‘, because I really missed Olympia…[But] I couldn’t really play with her now, because she’s asleep.” Serena told IT that the best part of being a mom is her daughter’s “toothless smiles and holding her and the way my heart skips a beat. I never thought it would be like that.”
As for her tennis, she said, “I’m not where I want to be, but I eventually will get there. I have my goals of when I want to be at peak. But at some point I need to start and jump and fly.”
And, come to think of it, that’s exactly what tennis did tonight as two triumphant mothers – Serena and her pal Victoria Azarenka – again proved that this game can soar to glorious heights.