It hit Serena Williams somewhere as she approached the net to shake Aravane Rezai’s hand. Her head out of the battle, it went back to her year away from tennis with injury, then illness. She won her return to Wimbledon Tuesday, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, and couldn’t even get to her chair before she started crying.
She sat down, buried her face in her towel and cried some more. She walked off the court, stopped to talk to BBC, and yes, kept crying.
“I usually don’t cry, so I don’t understand it,’’ she said. “But it’s just been so hard. . .It’s been a disaster year. I didn’t expect to play; I didn’t expect to even do anything. This is, this is, just, I’m excited. I never cry with joy for anything.’’
Through the years, we’ve seen Williams happy and mad, funny and sad, grumpy and, well, the point is, we’ve never seen her like this, so vulnerable. She is such a mix of hyper-emotions that, frankly, it was nice she let us see this side.
So Williams is back, and so is her sister, Venus, who missed nearly six months and then won her first-round match on Monday. Women’s tennis desperately needs the Williams sisters.
Back from a hip injury, Venus played well in her first match and should make a deep run. For Serena, this wasn’t her best tennis. She served big and fought hard, but she can’t play like this and win the tournament. She won’t play like this, though. She’s a little rusty. And I do think she’ll win.
“It’s been an up-and-down, bumpy road for the women’s tour as of late,’’ Roger Federer said. “We’ll see now how it goes here with the sisters back.’’
Tuesday’s match wasn’t about how well Serena was playing. It was just about playing at all, being back on tennis’ biggest stage.
There seems to be a lot of crying in tennis: Federer cried after losing to Rafael Nadal one year. Nadal cried when he won the French Open last year after nearly a year of injuries and family issues.
The sport itself lends to it. You are on the court all alone, and the game is all on you, and emotional. Oftentimes on the women’s tour, top players have left the court in tears, and it’s disappointing weakness from the world’s most likely sports role models for girls.
This didn’t seem like weakness from Williams. It just seemed like her being human. We don’t always get this honest of moments from our superstar athletes.
Williams described depression and tears over the past year. And these were a different kind of tears. This was about overcoming.
“I guess I proved that I could,’’ she said. “I could.’’
After winning Wimbledon last year, she said she hurt her foot at a German restaurant and had two surgeries. After that, theoretically from Williams sitting around while her foot healed, blood clots formed and worked their way up and into her lungs.
Even without playing, she has managed to stay the focus of the women’s game. First came doubts – from me, included – about how she actually hurt her foot. Then came the news of blood clots, and a rush to the hospital because of a hematoma. She had a stalker scare, posted a picture of herself on Twitter in a wild pink body suit the first day she practiced, made a dominatrix-like commercial in thigh highs for a video game, had a stalker scare, posted a Twitter avatar of herself in bra, panties and high heels.
And she also posted over and over about nights out with friends and fun at sporting events. But occasionally, dropped into the fun, she posted tweets about things going wrong, hints about depression.
“I always preach never give up, never give up,’’ she said. “I could have sat home and said, `I’ve had a fabulous career. I don’t have to work extra, extra hard now.’ ’’
Instead, she found that she was missing tennis. Also, it is not in her nature to let something beat her.
So Williams told more about her feelings in a press conference after the match. But that was just a description. What you saw in the minutes after the match was the real thing, unfiltered.
She still faced questions about her foot injury. She has given contradictory stories about it, including whether the first surgery was really necessary. The story is that she stepped on broken glass at a German restaurant, but now Williams said she isn’t sure exactly what happened.
On Tuesday, asked for the name of the restaurant, and why she didn’t sue if she had lost millions of dollars based on the negligence of the place, she said she didn’t remember the name and that she had been sued before and “would never want to put anyone through that.’’
Well, there was no denying the honesty of the moment Tuesday as she walked off the court. At 29, it’s still to be determined whether this past year will make her think of tennis as only a game, or as something she knows now could be taken away at any time.
That’s to be worked out later. Tuesday was about one beautiful, human moment:
“It’s just been so hard,’’ she said as she left the court. “I never dreamt I would be here now. I just wanted to win one match here. I just thought it would be… you know, it was really important for me.’’