Ex­ceed­ing her own ex­pec­ta­tions, Serena rolls into fi­nal

Santa Fe New Mexican - - SPORTS - By Liz Clarke

WIM­BLE­DON, Eng­land — There was a time, when she was a much younger player, that Serena Wil­liams got up­set when she wasn’t picked as the fa­vorite to win Wim­ble­don.

To­day, at 36 and just 10 months re­moved from a dif­fi­cult child­birth that was fol­lowed by grave health com­pli­ca­tions, she’s be­mused by those who ex­pected her to reach Wim­ble­don’s fi­nal this year, so soon af­ter re­turn­ing to com­pe­ti­tion.

“I lit­er­ally didn’t ex­pect to do this well in my fourth tour­na­ment back,” Wil­liams said Thurs­day af­ter do­ing just that, clinch­ing a spot in Satur­day’s fi­nal with a 6-2, 6-4 semi­fi­nal vic­tory over Ju­lia Goerges of Ger­many. “It’s not in­evitable for me to be play­ing like this.”

On Satur­day, No. 25 seed Wil­liams will face 11th-seeded An­gelique Ker­ber, who ad­vanced with a 6-3, 6-3 de­feat of the risk-tak­ing Je­lena Ostapenko, in a reprise of Wim­ble­don’s 2016 fi­nal. Al­though Wil­liams

won that match in straight sets to claim her sev­enth Wim­ble­don cham­pi­onship and the 22nd of her 23 Grand Slam ti­tles, she noted that Ker­ber, who has two Grand Slam ti­tles of her own, is a more ex­pe­ri­enced, dan­ger­ous op­po­nent to­day than she was two years ago.

“I have to be ready for the match of my

life,” Wil­liams said.

Given Wil­liams’ dom­i­na­tion of the sport over the past two decades, it is easy to as­sume that she can sum­mon great­ness at the snap of her fin­gers.

More­over, given the times she has tum­bled from the top of the world rank­ings fol­low­ing tragedy or in­jury, only to rise again — as she did fol­low­ing the 2003 death of her sis­ter Ye­tunde, foot surgery in 2010 and a life-threat­en­ing pul­monary em­bolism in 2011 — it’s easy to as­sume Wil­liams’ re­turn to world-beat­ing form was a cer­tainty af­ter ma­ter­nity leave. Hardly so. And Wil­liams has made a point of rais­ing the cur­tain on her rocky road back to make a larger point to women who feel over­whelmed by the changes in their bod­ies, emo­tions and pri­or­i­ties fol­low­ing child­birth.

“It’s about pick­ing your­self up off the floor,” said Jill Smoller, Wil­liams’ close friend, con­fi­dante and agent of nearly 20 years.

In a sense, Wil­liams has been writ­ing this nar­ra­tive — ris­ing up, over­com­ing, do­ing the im­pos­si­ble — since her fa­ther, Richard, took her and sis­ter Venus to a di­lap­i­dated ten­nis court in Comp­ton, Calif., put rack­ets in their hands and coached them, along with their mother, into cham­pi­ons.

For the past 18 years, Smoller has been by Serena Wil­liams’ side for al­most ev­ery step. And she views Wil­liams’ lat­est achieve­ment — reach­ing Wim­ble­don’s fi­nal for the 10th time — as “an­other piece to the story that’s not close to be­ing done.”

Speak­ing to re­porters af­ter Thurs­day’s semi­fi­nal, Wil­liams ap­peared re­laxed and re­vealed more about the chal­lenges she has faced since Alexis Olympia was born Sept. 1, in­clud­ing a re­cur­rence of life-threat­en­ing blood clots af­ter her emer­gency Cae­sarean sec­tion.

“I lost count af­ter four surg­eries be­cause I was in so many surg­eries,” she said. “… Be­cause of all the blood is­sues I have, I was re­ally touch-and-go for a minute.”

Ex­tended bed rest fol­lowed. For a time af­ter­ward, she could barely walk to the mail­box.

But she de­clined to com­pare her re­cov­ery to other in­juries and set­backs she has ex­pe­ri­enced, point­ing to the joy of moth­er­hood that off­sets it all. “It’s by far the tough­est,” she said. “But in a way, it’s by far the best.”

When she re­turned to com­pe­ti­tion in March, she was dis­ap­pointed that she didn’t per­form bet­ter. She lost in the third round at In­dian Wells, and then she was ousted in the first round at Mi­ami.

The idea was to treat each tour­na­ment like a step­ping­stone, but Wil­liams wanted to take giant steps. She also wres­tled with the pro­found pull of en­tirely new emo­tions.

“Mostly, the hard­est part was men­tally let­ting go of a lot of mommy things in or­der to fully be 100 per­cent into ten­nis,” Wil­liams said.

It was a process, as was re­claim­ing her move­ment, her tim­ing and the power in her serve — par­tic­u­larly af­ter in­jur­ing a pec­toral mus­cle mid­way through the French Open.

As a med­i­cal pre­cau­tion, given her his­tory of blood clots, Wil­liams wore a body-hug­ging com­pres­sion suit dur­ing play in Paris. To fash­ion­istas, it was a sleek cat­suit. To Wil­liams, it served dou­ble duty as a sym­bolic suit of ar­mor.

She was not in su­per­hero form when Wim­ble­don got un­der­way last week. She had only re­sumed serv­ing again a few days prior af­ter tak­ing a break to let her pec­toral heal.

But she im­proved with each round. Her move­ment has got­ten nim­bler; her ball-strik­ing, more crisp. And her serve, widely re­garded as the great­est in women’s ten­nis, once again packs its daunt­ing punch and place­ment.

Af­ter get­ting bro­ken by Goerges in the sec­ond set Thurs­day, Wil­liams slammed the door on any thought of a rally by serv­ing out the match with suc­ces­sive ser­vice blasts. All told, she won the point 87 per­cent of the time that she landed her first serve.

“This is as well as she has played, pe­riod, in her ca­reer,” said nine-time Wim­ble­don sin­gles cham­pion Martina Navratilova, com­men­tat­ing for the BBC. “It looks like she was never away.”

Few can fully ap­pre­ci­ate Wil­liams’ come­back these past 10 months.

But Pam Shriver has spe­cial in­sight as a 21-time Grand Slam dou­bles cham­pion and mother of three who had a C-sec­tion and knows first­hand the set­back it poses for any ath­lete whose sport taxes the ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles.

“I had age [in com­mon with Wil­liams] and a C-sec­tion, and I cer­tainly wasn’t com­ing back to play ten­nis,” said Shriver, who’s at Wim­ble­don as an ESPN an­a­lyst. “What is cut in a C-sec­tion are im­por­tant parts of your core [mus­cles]. It’s surgery — ma­jor ab­dom­i­nal surgery — and she had all these other com­pli­ca­tions.”

“What­ever hap­pens Satur­day, it’s one of the more im­pres­sive things that she has done. And that’s un­der­stat­ing it.”

Mostly, the hard­est part was men­tally let­ting go of a lot of mommy things in or­der to fully be 100 per­cent into ten­nis.” Serena Wil­liams, U.S. ten­nis player

BEN CUR­TIS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

On Satur­day, No. 25 seed Serena Wil­liams will face 11th-seeded An­gelique Ker­ber in a reprise of Wim­ble­don’s 2016 fi­nal.

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