Serena Williams had just defeated Lindsay Davenport in a grueling, three-set semifinal at the 1999 US Open. It was, at the time, the greatest win of the then-17-year-old’s career, sending her to the finals the following day against world No. 1, Martina Hingis.
The prospect of playing back-to-back matches that deep into a tournament usually sends players, even young ones, to physical therapy, a warm bath or a hotel room nap. Serena was too nervous for that, though.
Her first Grand Slam was there for the taking, so she brushed off the exhaustion, found a practice court and started hitting balls.
“She’s outside practicing?” Hingis, just 18 herself, said, in disbelief. “Go more and get cramps. I’m going to have a massage.”
The next day, Serena won, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) to capture the first of 23 major championships in one of the most illustrious careers of all-time.
Don’t expect her to put in extra work on Wednesday night. Don’t expect her to be bubbling over with energy to burn.
She is back where she seemingly always is — deep in a US Open, having advanced to the semifinals Wednesday afternoon via a three-set victory over Tsvetana Pironkova. She’ll play Thursday in the semifinals, no rest for the weary.
This time, though, she isn’t a teenager, but a 38-year-old mother coming off of her third consecutive three-set match. She shook off tired legs early to gut out this one against Pironkova, a new mom herself.
“Just shows me how tough moms are,” Williams said on ESPN after. “Whenever [you] can birth a baby, you can do anything. I think we saw that in Tsvetana today; she played unbelievable.”
Whether Williams has enough to win a 24th major championship, tying her with Margaret Court for the most all-time, remains in question. It should do nothing to diminish the accomplishment of getting here again, though.
This shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing pursuit, an anything-less-than-the-championship-is-a-failure standard.
At 38, Serena is still standing. At 38, Serena is still swinging.
“I never give up,” said Williams, who turns 39 on Sept. 26. “You have to keep going.”
She doesn’t have to keep going, of course. She won more championships and garnered more fame and earned more money than she ever could have imagined back in 1999.
She is in an entirely different stage of life now. Her husband replacing her father as her chief fan, her 3-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia, now the main focus of her life. At her age, most players are happily retired. (Hingis, for example, last made a Grand Slam final in 2002.)
Much of Williams’ motivation comes from wanting to win a major after becoming a mother. She suffered a pulmonary embolism during the birthing process, which threatened her life and made a return even tougher. She kept pushing forward, though. Now, here she is, seeking her fifth Grand Slam final since giving birth (two at Wimbledon, two here at the Open).
In doing so, she keeps redefining what is possible for an elite female athlete. She notes that she isn’t alone, pointing out that the 32-year-old Pironkova has a 2-year-old son.
“It’s like you play a match and you go home and you’re still changing diapers,” Williams said. “It’s like a double life. It’s really surreal.”
Williams describes herself as “super fit,” which she acknowledges is a far cry from the early days of her return.
It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t tire, or battle recovery, or look wearily at the younger legs standing in the way, most notably 22-year-old Naomi Osaka, who looms in the other semifinal as the betting favorite at this point.
There’s never been an easy way to win a major. Not when she was fresh-faced and full of energy and not now as she’s trying to grab one more title so she can know the joy of celebrating with her little girl.
The US Open has always been her favorite event. Back as a kid, growing up in Compton, California, her father, Richard, used to ask Serena and her sister, Venus, to dream of their greatest victory, their preferred major. Venus always chose Wimbledon, with its rich culture, pristine lawns and proper protocols.
Serena always said the US Open, the hot, humid one, the hard-court one, the New York one, the American one.
Twenty-one years ago, she stood inside Arthur Ashe Stadium with all the ability, all the potential, all the stamina she could ever need. Twenty-one years later, she’s back again, an entirely different person at an entirely different stage of life.
Still standing though. Still swinging.
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