Her preparation for the year’s first major couldn’t have gone much better, suggesting the mini grand slam drought for arguably tennis’ greatest ever player is about to cease.
Williams overcame singles opponents with differing styles, reached the doubles final with one of her best friends — the soon-to-be retired Caroline Wozniacki — and most crucially, ended a five-match losing streak in finals with her daughter and husband Alexis Ohanian looking on.
Eyes on bigger prize
Yes, as nice as it was to be holding the winners’ trophy in Auckland — where Williams once hit 88 unforced errors in a loss to Madison Brengle — she didn’t make the long trip to simply prosper in New Zealand. The much bigger prize is the Australian Open, where Williams triumphed while in the early stages of pregnancy in 2017.
If Williams makes the final in Melbourne — and she might have to defeat the likes of twice grand slam winner Naomi Osaka and current world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty along the way — she will probably have to then defeat someone with a heftier reputation than the 66th-ranked Pegula.
Helping Williams, however, is that one of the main contenders, Bianca Andreescu, isn’t in Melbourne because of another injury, this time to a knee.
But winning any final — after losses in grand slam finals to Osaka, Andreescu, Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep and retiring against Andreescu in the Rogers Cup finale last August — could potentially be turning point as Williams attempts to draw level with the grand slam haul of Australia’s Margaret Court.
“Serena, she certainly looks hungry, and I think she’s got a little momentum going into the Australian Open,” Chris Evert, the 18-time grand slam champion, told reporters in an ESPN conference call last week. “And it would probably be the least pressure, this grand slam, to win for her.
“I think every other tournament, the French Open, the clay isn’t her best surface. Wimbledon is a lot of pressure, US Open is a lot of pressure.
“This one, the first one of the year, it’s a ‘Happy Slam,'” referring to the Australian Open’s nickname. “I think if she just takes a little bit of pressure off herself and she can just play her brand of tennis, I think she’s got a good shot at winning it.
“She’s better at grand slams than any other player when you look at the last two years.”
The way Wozniacki put it, Williams has a “big chance” to match Court.
“I’m very impressed about her, that she keeps playing at this level, with being a mother and also being a little bit older than us,” said Halep, who made a mere three unforced errors in downing Williams in the 2019 Wimbledon final. “It’s impressive what she does.”
But Evert also underscored the stiffer challenges facing Williams.
“There are some darned good players out there that I have a lot of respect for, and the way that Osaka, Barty, Pliskova, Halep … there’s not one or two threats to Serena, there’s probably about eight threats, eight players that can probably do some damage and that can compete against her.
“And one more thing is — I always felt this way — the older you get, I think the more bad days you may have, days when you feel burned out, days when you don’t want to get out of bed, days when you don’t have incentive. You don’t want to have that day during a grand slam, but sometimes you can’t help it.”
Williams figures to still be around towards the end of the Australian Open, but whether it is as the last person standing continues to be the question.