The unbearable lightness of being Serena

 - Michael Beattie

The 23-time Grand Slam champion took a ‘really big step’ towards her best at the US Open

Serena Williams wawing at the end of her quartefinal match US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Perhaps it is too soon to truly understand what Serena Williams means to tennis. Years too soon. It may well take the distance of her eventual retirement, and a re-evaluation of the sport in her stead, before we can truly get a sense of her importance as both figure and figurehead.

Her place within the pantheon of champions has long been assured, but her bid for a 24th Grand Slam title, which continues on Thursday against Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova in the US Open semi-finals, would see her match the grandest of Grand Slam hauls – and on home turf, no less.

On Tuesday, the 36-year-old played her 100th match on Arthur Ashe Stadium, notching up her 94th US Open win, seven shy of Chris Evert’s Open-era record. More significantly, however, her quarter-final victory over Karolina Pliskova was her first against a top-10 opponent in fully 19 months – 14 of which were spent awaiting, experiencing and recovering from the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia, last September.

 “That’s a really big step for me,” Williams said after beating Pliskova, who had ended her 2016 US Open campaign in the semi-finals. “Shocking that it’s my first top-10 win. I really felt like I was playing well in Cincinnati, even though I lost. I was just on the verge. I’m getting those matches now, I was just so light on the matches. Now I feel like I’m at a level where I can play and try to compete against these amazing women in the top 10.”

“To be compared to Ali or Jordan, I have no words“

 “I’m looking at Jordan, I’m looking at Ali, [former NFL stars Joe] Namath, Jim Brown,” Lee said during a mid-match interview. “We get to see these people, it’s amazing.”

 “To be compared to Ali or Jordan, I really have no words,” Williams said. “Mainly Ali, because he did so much for the sport, he did so much for the world, for everyone. That’s what I want to do and want to be remembered for. It’s not what I want to do on court, but how I can inspire people off the court, that’s my dream.”

Lighter, happier, different

Williams is bidding to become the fourth mother to win a Grand Slam title, after Australians Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong, and Kim Clijsters, who beat Williams in the semi-finals of the 2009 US Open during her own comeback after having a child. And Williams has fully embraced her new reality, returning to tennis in 2018 with a fresh frankness and vulnerability as she seeks to strike the balance between tennis phenom and new mum.

“I've always been this joyful person, but now it's just totally different,” Williams recently told NBC on life since the arrival of Alexis Olympia. “I feel just light. I feel lighter and happier. And it's just a great feeling.”

That’s not to say it’s been easy, both on court and off. Williams has opened up on her difficult birth, feelings of inadequacy as a mother and the struggle to remain a constant presence in her daughter’s life, all the while recognising that she does so with the privilege of wealth, support and choice, and embracing the notion that she can be a role model and inspiration for new parents the world over.

“My choice is to choose to just be the best – try to be,” Williams said. “I’m not always perfect. Actually, I’m never perfect – just try to be the best that I can be. Maybe I can just influence one person, and that makes a change already.”

“Dont' call it a comeback“

It’s been a rocky road since Serena returned to action (“Don’t call it a comeback,” she insists in an ad campaign released on the eve of the US Open). Indian Wells and Miami arguably came too soon, and while she reached the fourth round at Roland-Garros she was forced to withdraw ahead of her showdown with Maria Sharapova.

Wimbledon, however, saw Williams’s game flourish once more as she surged to her first final since winning the 2017 Australian Open. Angelique Kerber proved a test too far in July, but after fighting back the tears in the trophy ceremony, a defiant Serena said: “I was really happy to get this far. It’s obviously disappointing but I can’t be disappointed. I’m literally just getting started. For all the mums out there, I was playing for you today – I tried.”

With no player ranked inside the top 10 though to the semi-finals, even with the No.17 seeding next to her name, Williams finds herself in the familiar territory of favourite for the title. But she has been here before, most notably in her two previous US Open semi-finals. In 2015, with an historic calendar slam on the line, she succumbed to the wily Roberta Vinci, while a knee injury in 2016 hampered her play against the then-unheralded Pliskova.

Serena Williams se qualifie pour la finale de Wimbledon 2018.©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Nothing to prove and a record on the line

The comparisons between Vinci and Sevastova, another player who plays with variety and spin, are unavoidable. But unlike the pressure-cooker atmosphere that surrounded Serena three years ago, she enters the match with a different mindset.

“I’ve been a couple steps away at the last Grand Slam, so I’m definitely not ahead of myself,” Williams insists. “I still know I have a really long way to go. I really feel like right now I’m playing free because I was having a baby this time last year, so I have nothing to prove.”

Nothing to prove, perhaps, but with fans to inspire and a record on the line, there’s all to play for.

“I’m here to do my best,” Williams said. “I don’t think I have another 10 years of opportunities to be able to play and win championships. Every match really means a lot to me, so I go out there and just do the best that I can.”