What’s next for battered ‘n’ bruised Serena?

The impact of her inability to regain fitness levels post pregnancy, and the effect of a split with her longtime coach earlier this year were evident in Serena Williams’ performance at Wimbledon this year. Will the legacy of this champion end in agony?

Serena Williams

Photo: Getty

Despite playing in just five events before Wimbledon, Serena Williams was one of the sentimental favourites to win the 2022 event. And there were reasons too.

The tournament was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the first cancellation of the tournament since World War II. With most players in the women’s section having little recent exposure on grass and champion players like Naomi Osaka and reigning champion Simona Halep not around this time, everyone thought that Serena had a golden chance to match Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam record.

But as luck would have it, Serena failed to reproduce any of those magic moments which have enthralled the Wimbledon audience over the decades.

Serena’s three-set first-round loss to Frenchwoman, Harmony Tan, in a match that lasted over three hours at Wimbledon reminded her that competition becomes extremely difficult when you are playing after a long break. The desperation to get her 24th Grand Slam title was written large and clear on her face as she was waving goodbye to a large crowd gathered there to see a high-profile encounter.

The crowd, which had gathered to celebrate Centre Court’s centenary (1922 to 2022), was expecting a different outcome. All those gathered there wanted a bit of emotional stuff from Serena, but what they got was complete heartbreak.

Although the 40-year-old Serena was not completely out of sorts as she showed her fire and flair during those three hours, it was her lack of match practice that played a decisive role in her defeat. Every tennis expert around the world has agreed that Serena had all the techniques to compete at this level, but she has been lacking the physical prowess to win at the highest level for the last few years.

Whether in 2021 or beyond, her time at the All-England Club wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Beautiful or cruel?

Since coming back from childbirth in 2018, Serena has made four major finals — both Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018 and 2019.

Aside from the US Open in 2018, where she played some memorable tennis against champion Naomi Osaka and both were in tears after the match point, she has not looked like the great champion that she used to be.

It’s not that the world of tennis doesn’t remember Serena, the great champion, but one has to understand that sport can be cruel to those who refuse to read the writing on the wall. The fans of Serena still remember how she won her last title at the Australian Open in 2017, her 23rd Grand Slam title. But that was five years ago, and the reality now is that Serena has lost that touch and the knack of closing big matches since then.

Only a few tennis fans knew in 2017 that Serena was carrying her first love child while taking on her opponents in Melbourne’s heat at the Australian Open. She went on a long maternity break after giving birth to her child a few months later.

Serena wanted to return badly, and she worked hard for it. But her fitness was never the same. The current situation is such that, while her fans believe she has the desire to compete in major championships, she most likely lacks the physical ability to last the length of time required to win big matches.

Her rankings have fallen during all these years, and she now sometimes needs wild card entry to get into the main draw.

But youngsters are not there to welcome you back. They can’t wait any longer to get recognition. On the contrary, it hurts the legacy that Serena or, for that matter, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, or even Novak Djokovic, have built over decades. For all those who believe that if Nadal can preserve his supremacy at the top for so long, why can’t Serena?

Nadal is an exception or may not be compared with ‘mom’ Serena.

Serena knows she is past prime. She knows she is unable to devote the same time as before, what with a family to manage. Nadal or for that matter 2022 Wimbledon men’s champion Djokovic have kept working on their bodies. Serena needs to take a call on her future. She can’t be a part-time mother or a champion. 

Celebrity, not champion

Serena is a brand unto herself. One has to understand that this American star can be recognized easily in any crowd. whereas any modern-day player may go unnoticed by the average Londoner on the streets.

Serena has been a global star whose ability to relate to several issues, even outside tennis, marks her out as a supreme champion. Her life story has been one of rags to riches. She represents the ‘big’ society of black Americans in a big way.

After her first-round defeat in London, Serena was questioned about her future. She was expectably non-committal. She looked tempted to compete at the US Open in New York. And why not? 

But the problem is that, with this kind of preparation, one would fear that she may come up short again.

To get back to par and stay alive at this level, Serena needs to get back to her long-time coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, with whom she split earlier in 2022. Those who play the sport day in and day out are the ones who also understand that wild card entries are not going to take Serena too far at this time of her career.

You cannot get wild cards and enter Grand Slams, hoping the opponents will be kind. Look at Federer, who has been delaying his comeback because he doesn’t feel fit to play at this level.

For Indian sports fans, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s decision to play only in the Indian Premier League (IPL) may not give them a true picture of the tennis world. The needs of cricket are far different from those of tennis. Serena’s problems are much more than just a lack of training and match practice. One has to accept the fact that her body has been battered and bruised for decades.

In Serena’s case, her heart and mind may be willing to combine for one last hurrah. But winning the 24th Grand Slam title needs much more devotion and commitment from her side. Anyone who goes and spends hundreds of dollars just to see her in action would certainly not want her to lose early rounds.

It hurts, for sure. 

The legacy that Serena has built over decades cannot end in agony. She is much more than tennis for many of us. She is a true champion who deserves a proper farewell from the court. The window for those dreams to come true is undoubtedly getting smaller.

Serena will one day decide to call it quits. But her influence will long be felt by generations to come. And no matter whether she wins another Grand Slam or not, her legacy is firmly secured in the history books!

 

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Chander Shekhar Luthra
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