Serena Williams was always going to win another tournament. That was inevitable. So the news this weekend, when she won the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, wasn’t that she had won for the first time since Wimbledon in 2010. It was seen as a finish line to her comeback from a year off with illness (blood clots in her lungs) and injury (foot surgery). But it was much more important than that.
It was the starting line.
This tournament was evidence that Williams really did feel some vulnerability, did feel a lack of invincibility.
“I was really disappointed at Wimbledon,’’ she said on ESPN after crushing Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. That’s a big tournament for me. I decided it’s time to get serious, not only at the slams, but at every other tournament as well.’’
Every. Other. Tournament. Let’s call them EOTs. She hasn’t cared about them in years, choosing instead to lose on purpose, and early, or not show up at all, claiming injury to keep out of mandatory events. She has seen them as burdens.
At one tournament two years ago, she said she didn’t want to play, but went anyway because to avoid being fined $75,000. That was the same amount she had budgeted, she said, for new furniture to remodel one of her homes. Then, she quit in the middle of her first match and went home.
But let’s face it: Bank of the West Classic, while a good tournament, is not Wimbledon, and she clearly did try. Reports were that she was working hard, even in the morning of her matches. She joked that she thought maybe she’d start doing something new, like warming up.
I thought she could step right into Wimbledon and win, right after the long layoff. Deep down, she surely thought the same thing. Instead, she lost in the fourth round, and the questions then were undeniable. About to turn 30, is she able to get her old form back? Is the game actually progressing, gaining on her, with some young stars, such as Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova?
“I’m so 2000,’’ Williams joked.
Well, she can get it back, but maybe not as easily as before. I think that’s what she learned at Wimbledon. The choice then is to let the game pass you by, or to fight back.
Williams apparently is not ready to start letting her career fade away. And if she’s going to fight to get her old spot back, then she might turn out to be better than she was before. For once, something might be pushing her.
It’s going to take some effort between majors, at the EOTs. And she says she’s willing to do it.
“Before everything went downhill, I liked tennis. I loved going on tour, loved playing,’’ she said. “But now, I just REALLY love it. I love every moment out there. Just having an opportunity out there. . .I almost missed my chance for the rest of my life. I really missing being out there, really miss the atmosphere.’’
She had said some of those same things while she was out. But I’m guessing she thought there was no one in her way back to the top. Honestly, that’s what I thought, too.
If Williams is going to start trying at EOTs, then that’s because she sees it as the best path to win majors. It also might mean that while she was out, she missed the process.
Or, it might mean that she’s just saying what she thinks people want to hear. It’s not easy to be sure. She did play Martina Hingis in World Team Tennis a few weeks ago and gave zero effort the first half of the set.
Still, this past week it was apparently she had been working harder. Sharapova looked scared to death when Williams beat her 6-1, 6-3. Serena scared the serve right out of her; it was complete intimidation. Sabine Lisicki, ranked No. 26, was scared in the semis against Williams, too.
And in the finals, Williams went down a break in the first set to Marion Bartoli. She broke back, then rolled, 7-5, 6-1. In five matches, she lost one set, and more than two games in a set just three times.
That makes three tournaments back for Williams now, who is already the big favorite to win the U.S. Open.
Here’s hoping that Williams’ rediscovery of her love of the game, and the motivation to work, will stick for the long term. No one has ever questioned her ability, but only whether she makes the most of her potential.
Imagine what she can do if she wants.