WIMBLEDON, England — It looked straightforward again on the grass and in the summer sunshine on Thursday as Serena Williams kept the angst and the unforced errors to a minimum on Centre Court.
But it has been anything but easy for her to get back to what might seem like her rightful place in a Wimbledon final.
“This is not inevitable for me,” she told the BBC, moments after she played what looked like her finest match of the season to defeat Julia Görges, 6-2, 6-4, in the semifinals.
It has been less than a year since Williams gave birth to her daughter, Olympia. It has been less than a year since she checked out of the hospital in September after major postdelivery problems, including a pulmonary embolism, and walked slowly and with great difficulty toward the front door of her Florida home while clinging tightly to the handle of a baby carrier containing her infant daughter.
“I didn’t want to let her go,” Williams said in a recent interview. “Or I should say, I don’t want to let her go.”
With 23 major singles titles to her credit, Williams could easily have decided to call it a career at age 36. She won the Australian Open in 2017 while two months pregnant, which she has agreed would have been the equivalent of a walk-off home run.
She had won all the Grand Slam singles and women’s doubles trophies at least twice, but she decided she wanted another challenge and stuck by that choice even though the complications after her cesarean section made a return to the circuit all the more difficult.
Williams won only two of her first four matches after coming back to the tour in March, struggling with her weight, movement and rhythm. But after another two-month break, she has yet to be defeated in her next two tournaments. She withdrew with a pectoral injury after winning three rounds at the French Open and then, after recovering in time for Wimbledon, has won six more rounds at the All England Club.
“I had to have multiple surgeries, and I almost didn’t make it to be honest,” Williams said of her postdelivery trauma. “I remember I couldn’t even walk to my mailbox, so it’s definitely not normal for me to be in a Wimbledon final. So I’m taking everything as it is and just enjoying every moment.”
Saturday’s final against Angelique Kerber could certainly be quite a moment. Williams and Kerber combined to produce two memorable Grand Slam finals in 2016, with Kerber prevailing at the Australian Open and Williams at Wimbledon.
In the Thursday’s first semifinal, Kerber, the highest seed remaining at No. 11, was much too steady and resourceful for another power player, 21-year-old Jelena Ostapenko. Kerber, in the midst of a resurgent season of her own, won, 6-3, 6-3, rebooting rallies with her defense while Ostapenko kept going for broke and too often missing the target.
Saturday is a chance for Williams to equal Margaret Court’s longstanding record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
There are potential parallels. Court gave birth to her first child — a son, Daniel — in March 1972 and returned to the circuit later that season. She went on to win her final three major singles titles in 1973, including the Australian Open less than a year after childbirth.
Court’s career mark, which once seemed beyond Williams’s reach, has been a frequent discussion point in the past. But Williams said that she had not been thinking about it here.
“Not even once actually,” she said. “I think that’s a good thing because I put so much pressure on myself when I was trying to get to 18, then the rest, it was so much.”
Williams was referring to hereffort in 2014 to equal the longtime measuring sticks Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who each won 18 Grand Slam singles titles.
“As I said in the past couple years, I don’t want to limit myself,” Williams said. “I think that’s what I was doing in the past. I was limiting myself. It’s just a number. I want to get as many as I can.”
Given the circumstances, if Williams were to win No. 24 on Saturday, it would surely deserve consideration as her greatest career achievement.
“Top of the heap,” Evert said.
But at this unusual stage, the chase for No. 24 seems secondary to Williams’s simply being back in sparkling form so soon after her delivery and medical problems.
“She’s carrying a message and on a platform that is so much bigger than a tournament or a sport,” said Jill Smoller, her longtime agent. “This is about people — male, female, black, white, rich, poor — that are on the floor and don’t know if they can get up and do anything, and it’s about nothing is impossible.”
Asked if Williams was reaching a broader audience now, Smoller said, “Of course.”
“You have icon, absolutely unarguably or arguably one of the greatest athletes of all time: male, female, black, white,” she said. “You have businesswoman. You have philanthropist. You have wife. You have a mother. You have someone who is at the forefront on racism, female empowerment, the gender pay gap.”
That is quite a potential load to carry on and off a tennis court, but Williams has seemed eager to embrace a broader message and role. Other than skipping a mandatory postmatch news conference in Miami after a first-round defeat, she has been less reluctant to answer questions in detail on a wide range of topics and to share particulars of her private life since Olympia’s birth and her marriage last year to Alexis Ohanian.
Her peers have noticed a change, including Daniela Hantuchova, the recently retired Slovak star.
“She’s much more humble, completely different to what we’ve been used to a few years ago,” Hantuchova said Thursday. “And I think being a mom makes her be like this.”
In the past, Williams has often looked to be exorcising personal demons in the latter stages of major tournaments — the power in her strokes matched by the fire in her eyes.
The grunts and ferocious focus were still there against Görges, who put up more resistance in her first Grand Slam semifinal than Thursday’s score might indicate. But when Görges’s final shot soared long, Williams did not roar with relief or release.
This time, she looked toward her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, family and friends quite calmly, put a hand to her heart and smiled.
“I don’t even know how to feel because I literally didn’t expect to do this well in my fourth tournament back in 16 months,” she said. “I just feel when I don’t have anything to lose, I can play so free.”
Roger Federer voiced similar sentiments when he returned to the men’s circuit in January 2017 after his first extended injury layoff and quickly won the Australian Open. Federer was not returning from childbirth, but he was playing without the usual burden of being a heavy favorite.
And yet Williams does look like the favorite on Saturday, particularly if she can serve as effectively and strike the ball as cleanly as she did against Görges.
“I think if Serena played the way she played today, she will win,” said Jill Craybas, the retired American player who upset Williams in the third round at Wimbledon in 2005. “I think the one thing that Kerber is doing a little bit better is being more aggressive on the forehand side. And I think she’s serving a bit better, but Serena is standing so far inside the baseline to return and is giving her opponents no time to react. She’s hitting the ball so early.”
Williams has not been untouchable here, even with a very clement draw at a place where she has won the singles title seven times. In the quarterfinals, she dropped the first set against Camilia Giorgi, ranked No. 52, and had not faced a seed until playing the 13th-seeded Görges.
If Kerber can put in a high percentage of first serves and extend the rallies, as she did often against Williams in 2016, she certainly has a counterpuncher’s chance.
“Every day is different,” Evert said. “Kerber absorbs power better than anyone and doesn’t make many unforced errors. She will have to serve really well.”
Whatever the outcome, Williams has proved yet again that she has the will and drive to return to the fore.
“I did flash back today,” her mother and longtime co-coach, Oracene Price, said as she leaned on a railing in the Wimbledon players area on Thursday. “A lot, a lot, a lot of comebacks.”
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