Ten years ago, having just won her 13th major title, Serena Williams was asked where she’d like to see herself in a decade’s time.
“Hopefully I’m somewhere relaxing,” the then-29 year said, breaking into a smile. “Maybe spanking some kids. Who knows.”
She got the kids part right, as her daughter, Alexis Olympia, is now three years old. But the relaxing? It’s quite the opposite for the 23-time major singles winner and four-time Olympic gold medallist in tennis, who heads into the 2021 season with her eyes fixed on creating more history.
Williams, who will turn 40 in September, already holds the Open Era record for singles majors won at 23, and is looking to equalize the all-time record of 24 at the Australian Open, which runs 8-21 February in Melbourne.
Serena has been to four Slam finals since her comeback from giving birth, though she’s fallen at the final hurdle each time.
“I really play for Grand Slams right now,” Williams told U.S. talk show host Stephen Colbert in a recent interview. “I love still having the opportunity to be out here and be able to compete at this level. It’s an opportunity… anytime I win a Grand Slam it means the world to me.”
Also likely on Williams’ calendar this year is the coming Summer Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020, Serena having won the singles at London 2012 while capturing doubles with sister Venus at Sydney 2000, Beijing 2008 and London.
Australian aspirations... and Olympia!
Williams is a seven-time champion at the AO, dating all the way back to 2003, when she completed the first “Serena Slam” – winning all four majors consecutively. She won her most recent major in Australia in 2017 over sister Venus before announcing in April of that year that she was expecting baby Olympia.
The three-and-a-half-year old was snapped on the tennis court with mum recently, and has made the trip with Serena – and father Alexis Ohanian – Down Under for the coming fortnight, the family quarantining in Adelaide ahead of an exhibition event there, where Serena beat Osaka Naomi.
“[Olympia] is a perfectionist on the court. I’m not quite sure where she got that from,” Serena laughed in her interview with Colbert. “I never thought I would let my daughter play tennis, but then during this pandemic it’s the only thing we’ve been able to do safely, so I was like, ‘Well, tennis it is.’”
“I think it’s a little dab of pressure on her, too,” Serena added, with laughter. “I wouldn’t naturally put her in it, but if it’s something that she wants to do then I would be like, ‘You should totally do that.’ I would be rooting for her, supporting her … but it wouldn’t be the first thing [I’d pick] for her.”
‘She still feels that she can win Grand Slams’
In November, Serena’s longtime coach Patrick Mouratoglou spoke exclusively to Olympic Channel, and said that his charge is not backing down from big goals for the coming year.
“Serena's goals have not changed since she came back to tennis after giving birth: She still feels that she can win Grand Slams,” he said. “If she can have some Olympic gold medals, she would be extremely happy, too, because that's also a great achievement for any athlete in any sport. [But] the last three years were disappointing because even though she reached four Grand Slam finals, she was not able to win one.”
Only for a top-level elite athlete like Williams is disappointment seen in four Slam finalist finishes, but Williams has continued to keep herself in the mix, currently ranked No.11 in the world and making the semi-finals at the U.S. Open in September, losing to fellow mum Victoria Azarenka in three tough sets.
“I mean, it's obviously disappointing,” Williams told reporters in New York. “At the same time, you know, I did what I could today. I feel like other times I've been close and I could have done better. Today I felt like I gave a lot.”
While Osaka as well as world No.1 Ash Barty, defending champ Sofia Kenin and two-time major winner Simona Halep will be among the women's favourites in Melbourne, Williams has always been considered a factor – if not the favourite – in her more than 20 years on tour.
“I [can] feel that her motivation is absolutely intact, maybe bigger” for 2021, Mouratoglou said in November. “It was difficult for her to find new balance as a mother and as a professional athlete. And I feel like she's finding it. I feel like she's understanding what it's going to take for her to win one or several other Grand Slams. And I feel like she's prepared to pay the price for that. So I'm extremely excited for 2021. I can't wait for it.”
Re-uniting with her fans
The tennis tour went on hiatus from March to late July in 2020, Williams having lost to Chinese player Wang Qiang in the third round of the Australian Open last January.
She spent much of her year at home with her family in Florida, she and Olympia going viral for this adorable mummy-and-daughter princess pic.
Williams said she was happy to adhere to Australian quarantine regulations, which had players in their hotels for 14 days, though many players – Williams included – had careful five-hour blocks of training each day to maintain their form.
“For me, it’s really looking at the bigger picture,” she said of quarantine. “2020 was a tough year for everyone; it was so intense. We don’t want to go through that again. Being careful, considerate. Listening to the people that know what they’re doing, the frontline workers. It’s about mental toughness.”
Williams expressed her gratitude to organizers after her match with Osaka, taken aback at the 4,000 fans in the stands in Adelaide. Australian has had close to zero community spread of the coronavirus in the last several weeks.
“We honestly haven’t played in front of a crowd in over a year,” Williams said on court. “It’s been a really long time, so this is really cool. Thanks for having us.”