Three short weeks ago, Serena Williams sat down for her press conference at the French Open after a bitter straight-sets loss in the fourth round to the young Kazakh Elena Rybakina. During most other phases of Williams’s illustrious career, a defeat so early in any major tournament after a performance so far beneath her potential would have understandably elicited ample frustration. Not this time.
As she dissected her 90 minutes on court, Williams’s tone was positive. She explained that she had, at least, gained more matches under her belt and showed clear improvement from a pair of early losses during the clay season, her least effective surface. “I’m in a much better place than when I got here,” she concluded. “You know, just literally trying to win a match, because it had been a really difficult season for me on the clay.”
Her reaction, in public at least, spoke to the reality of being 39 years old in an individual sport mostly populated by adversaries aged a decade or more younger. No matter how much of a perfectionist she is and how much she has won, age is unavoidable. Part of the reason why she and her fellow 39-year-old, Roger Federer, have been able to play at such a high level for so long is because they have accepted and adapted to its challenges.
In Williams’s case, her schedule is even more succinct than her already abbreviated timetable during her peak. She has prioritised her goals and although her standards are still stratospheric, still expecting herself to win every single match is unrealistic. Additionally, she has maintained a healthy relationship towards her career by keeping her growing family in mind: on Sunday she announced she will not participate in the Olympics. Although she declined to give a reason, Williams previously made it clear that she had no interest in leaving her daughter at home, per the IOC rules, in order to chase sporting success.
It was always clear that what followed the French Open was most important, and now it is here. Wimbledon remains Williams biggest chance to win her open era record-extending 24th major title this year.
For a seven-times Wimbledon champion, Williams doesn’t always sound entirely enthusiastic when talking about grass, but it is certainly the surface where her game most thrives. She has also reached four other Wimbledon finals, including two finals on her last two appearances and the grass, even as it has changed over the years, fits snugly into her game. The speed of the court aids her serve and allows her to shorten the points, remaining efficient and in control of most exchanges.
The two consecutive finals Williams has lost also show how difficult it will be. Players still greatly value the achievement of beating her, but they are often emboldened by the knowledge that she is far more vulnerable than in the past. At some point, Williams always meets someone who produces their best tennis against her. In her last Wimbledon outing, she was ravaged 6-2, 6-2 by Simona Halep who committed just three unforced errors in their 2019 final.
“I’ve had a big X on my back since ’99, since I won the US Open,” Williams said. “When players play me that hard every single tournament, every single match, every single grand slam, it just doesn’t matter where, you just get better so … Yeah, it’s been difficult mentally when someone might beat you and they lose directly in the next round almost every time. At the end of the day that’s why I’m Serena. So thanks.”
Whether or not this outing is successful, her continued presence is impressive alone. It has been 23 years since Williams’s first appearance in 1998 and five years since her most recent victory in 2016. Unlike in football, where the most talented older players can gracefully age into retirement and adapt their roles within the team, there is no hiding place in tennis. You are either the best in the draw or you lose.
Here Williams is again, as is Federer in the men’s draw, digesting her losses and putting herself on the line in the hope that her perseverance will pay off and she will be good enough to lift a major trophy again.