It’s her favorite part about playing professional tennis, Serena Williams revealed Thursday night.
“It’s that initial walk onto the crowd when it’s just you and your opponent and everyone’s there to see just you two play,” she said. “I forgot about that.”
She also forgot, or likely did not see coming, the sudden rush of emotion she would experience before walking onto the court for her first match back on the WTA Tour after a 14-month maternity leave and the September birth of daughter Alexis Olympia.
“I almost cried,” she said. “I texted [my husband] Alexis and I was like, ‘Is it normal I want to cry?’ I really missed her, but playing at night really helped because she goes to bed, so I know she’s asleep, [that] I can’t play with her right now.”
It is indeed a new world greeting the perhaps greatest tennis player of all time as she navigates life as a working mother, a 36-year-old woman who, for all of her success on court as the winner of more Grand Slam singles titles (23) than any man or woman in modern history, is also a helpless puddle of love when it comes to her baby’s “toothless smile.”
“I’ve never done this before and I know I’m going to make mistakes and I’m okay with that,” she said of her new routine. “And I’m just going to be ready for what happens.”
There was really no way of knowing what to expect before her first-round victory over Zarina Diyas, a player without the weapons to compete with the old Serena but was theoretically capable of beating the version we had last seen playing doubles for the U.S. Fed Cup team.
As it turned out, Williams made some serious strides in a month and was fitter, sharper and, ultimately, a lot closer to the old Serena than most expected. Throw in the fact that Williams had, in fact, suffered life-threatening complications after childbirth, which the public only learned about in January, and Thursday night was indeed remarkable.
It was the shots she said she normally makes “nine times out of 10” but that she now missed more frequently that was the biggest difference for her. Her timing and stamina? All good, she said.
Williams, who will play No. 29 seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands in a second-round match Saturday, had 27 unforced errors against Diyas and she only converted five of 11 break-point chances. But like always, she willed herself to win the big points. And even when she was missing, she said, Williams is now playing with a freedom she has never before experienced.
“It’s different,” she said. “I’m playing with nothing to lose. I only can gain. I could have been playing like that for years. But it’s a real joy to be out here. Sometimes I think about those moments I was in the hospital and not even knowing how serious it was until later. Just being able to come through that makes me feel that no matter what happens, I know that I’m capable of being strong [and] no matter if I win or lose, that there’s so much more to my life.”
Playing unseeded for the first time since 2011, without a first-round bye, it’s all part of this new phase she said she knows will not be easy. But then, that’s okay.
“I was thinking about it and I feel like when you’re young and you first come on tour and you’re excited to play and you want to play the top players to see where your game is, that’s really how I felt [Thursday],” Williams said. “I’m in this tournament and I wanted to see where I am and I’m just excited to be here, on the grounds of a tournament, to be playing, and it’s really fun.”
The “R” word was apparently never in play, Serena said. Leaving the game she loves will happen when she wakes up and just doesn’t feel it any longer or wants to spend more time with her daughter.
“It just wasn’t my time to retire yet, even though it would have been a great way to retire,” she said. “I just felt my story wasn’t over and I definitely wanted to come back.”
While she is certainly not where she would like to be, she’s getting there, she said. And she vowed to be patient.
“That’s one thing I realize,” she said. “I’m not going to be there today or next week or tomorrow, but I will eventually get there. At some point, I need to start and jump and fly and I can do it. Every day is going to be a challenge for me, but I know I’ll overcome it and I’m ready to overcome it.”