There is a moment in the documentary, “Serena”, which was shown on the BBC on Sunday, that gave an interesting insight into the mentality of the world No1, who on Saturday will be aiming to win her 22nd grand slam title, something that would equal the open-era record held by Steffi Graf.
Lying on her bed, in the aftermath of her defeat by Roberta Vinci of Italy in the semi-finals of the US Open last year which ended her hopes of achieving the coveted calendar year grand slam, she said: “I don’t want to talk about losing, I don’t like losing. I don’t want to talk about the match, I don’t want to think about the match. This is the biggest moment in my career history and I didn’t get it.
“I’ve never been in this position. I’ve never been so close to having something and then losing it. I also just feel like I’ve let a lot of people down … I [was] giving a lot of people hope to believe that they could do something impossible, but hell, I couldn’t do it either.”
Ten months after that near miss, Wimbledon is the only one of the four grand slam titles that remains in Williams’ possession. Beaten in the final of the French Open last month by Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, she takes on Germany’s Angelique Kerber, the woman who upset her in the final of the Australian Open in January, in a bid to win her seventh Wimbledon singles crown.
Having taken the rest of 2015 off after her US Open heartbreak, using the time to recover mentally and allow her chronic knees to rest, Williams arrived in Australia slightly undercooked and though she made the final, Kerber took advantage with a bold performance which in itself was an indication that maybe, just maybe, the American’s aura is slipping. She remains head and shoulders the best player in the world when she is at her best, but as Kerber, Muguruza and Vinci all showed, she is human. When stress is thrown into the mix, she is vulnerable and crucially, they showed that they believe they can win.
It was after that defeat in Melbourne, as Kerber won her first grand slam title, that Williams realised she needed to be better prepared for each of the grand slams if she wanted to equal Graf and challenge the all-time record of 24 held by the great Australian Margaret Court, which was achieved across the amateur and professional eras.
In Paris, she was beaten by an inspired performance from Muguruza, after which Williams retreated to Florida and, after a few days’ off, to Mackie Shilstone, an American who has been her fitness trainer for nine years and whose other clients have included the NFL star Peyton Manning and the boxer Roy Jones Jr.
On his Twitter feed, Shilstone describes himself as “America’s most influential sports performance specialist – specialising in career extension”.
Just under three months short of her 35th birthday, Williams arrived at Wimbledon looking in good shape and she has dropped just one set on her way to the final, with her demolition of Russian Elena Vesnina in the semi-finals a statement of intent. Kerber, who will become the new world No2 after this week, is sure to ask her many more questions but revenge is a great motivation and it would be a surprise if Williams does not play well. “Obviously it’s significant that she beat me in Australia because that’s the last time we did play,” she said.
“And also just as an opponent, she’s great. She does things well. She moves excellent. She’s fun to play.”
Serena was back on court on Friday to accompany her sister, Venus, into the final of the women’s doubles with a hard-fought 7-6, 6-4 victory over Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic and Germany’s Julia Görges. After a winning a tight first set, 7-3 on the tiebreak, the sisters came from 4-2 down to set up a clash with the No5 seeds, Timea Babos of Hungary and Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan for the title.
If her quest in 2015 to become only the sixth player, male or female, to win the calendar year grand slam showed one thing, it is the effect stress can have even on the greatest player of her generation and perhaps any generation.
It eventually caught up with her at the US Open in New York but though she lost in the Melbourne and Paris finals, she appears to be feeling good about life, which may make all the difference.
“I think confidence brews peace and calm in champions,” she said. “I think that’s how I feel. I feel good. I felt great in other tournaments, as well. But I feel a little different. I just feel more relaxed and more at peace than I may have been in the past.
“[In Australia] I made a lot of errors. She made little to no unforced errors. It was still a three-set match. She came out swinging, ready to win. She was fearless.
“That’s something I learned. When I go into a final, I, too, need to be fearless like she was.”
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