Focused Serena not worrying about Court's record

“I have been going for the record what seems like forever now, so it doesn't feel any different,” Williams said in Melbourne.

Serena Williams hitting a backhand during her first round match at the Australian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Simon Cambers

When Serena Williams overtook Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 grand slam titles by winning the Australian Open in 2017, all the talk then was of how long it would take for her to equal, and then pass, the all-time record of 24, held by the legendary Australian Margaret Court.

Little did we know at the time, but Williams, now 37, was already pregnant by the time she won her seventh Australian Open title.

“The last time I was here I was actually pregnant and playing at the same time, which is insane,” Williams said, after beginning her title quest with a confident 6-0, 6-2 drubbing of Tatjana Maria of Germany, a fellow mother. “It was kind of weird walking in by myself this time. I have so many good memories of the last time I was here, it was literally the best win of my career.”

Serena was denied grand slam No24

The American returned to the Tour in March of last year, having suffered blood clots shortly after the birth of her daughter, Olympia, and she struggled for form and fitness in the first couple of tournaments.

It didn’t take long for Williams to find form, though. She reached the final at Wimbledon and again at the US Open, but was denied grand slam No 24 by outstanding performances from Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka respectively.

The pressure of equalling Court got to her in New York when she suffered a meltdown during the final but she said she was putting it out of her mind. “I have been going for the record what seems like forever now, so it doesn't feel any different,” Williams said.  

Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said here two years ago that Williams is not motivated by records, simply winning grand slams. To do that, she will need to win six more matches but on her form against Maria, she looks strong.

Thinking Serena Williams during her first round match at the Australian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“I didn't make too many unforced errors,” said Williams, who was dressed all in green, having practised in a black raincoat. “She's a tricky player. Could have been easily a 6-3, 6-4 match or three-set match. She's been able to beat top players, No 1 and No 2, so she knows how to play. I think always when I have a tougher round or I know someone that's really good, I really want to be focused, and then that was really helpful for me today.”

“I have been working really, really hard in the off-season to be incredibly fit and incredibly ready. I took a year off and (I’m) still trying to get 12 months under my belt of playing, actually. I wanted to be fit. I came back.”

Serena Williams and Tatjana Maria leaving the court Australian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Feeling guilty

Williams and Maria are neighbours in Palm Beach, Florida, and their daughters play together when they are at home. But the former world No 1 showed her friend no mercy as she ripped through the first set in 18 minutes, crushing returns back at her Maria’s feet. Maria got on the board in the second but Williams raced to victory.

Williams, who wore compression socks, said she was still feeling guilty being away from her daughter. “I understand that that's normal but…these are years I'll never get back,” she said. “I just try to spend every moment that I can when I'm not working with her. And for me that's super important.”

Williams will face Eugenie Bouchard in the second round after the Canadian impressed in beating Peng Shuai of China 6-1, 6-2. Bouchard is showing signs of her best form after a rough few years and said playing Williams would be a great test of her level.

"I really like she doesn't quit"

“I think she's the greatest ever,” she said, “so it's just so cool that I'll be able to share the court with her and an opportunity to see how I compare to one of the best players. I mean, her ranking is top 20 right now, but to me she's always basically No 1.”

Williams said she was looking forward to the challenge. “It will be a great match, she plays really well,” she said. “She does everything well, and I really like that she doesn't quit. People write her off, and she doesn't let that bother her. She continues to fight and do what she needs to do. I think that's really not good.”

Having missed last year’s event here, Williams said only one thing had changed. “I'm not pregnant, that's the biggest difference,” she said, laughing. “No, I'm not pregnant.”