With the US Open starting this week, the winner of four singles titles in New York tells Sport how the drama of the past two years has left her wanting more “I’m enjoying every moment I step out on court. I just want to do the best I can now. And, if I lose... well, two years ago I was in hospital almost dead, so it can’t be that bad.”
„Two years ago I was in the hospital, almost dead,” says Serena Williams, fixing us with her intense gaze. Williams is no stranger to tragedy, but even for her the statement is dripping with soap-opera-style sensation.
Except that it’s not sensationalist at all, because when the world number one was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital in February 2011 with a pulmonary embolism (in this case, blood clots on her lungs) and a haematoma, it turned out that the trip had been made in the nick of time. “If it had been left a few days later, it could have ended my career, or even worse,” she reflects now. “They said I had several blood clots in both lungs – a lot of people die from that.”
One of the most dramatic chapters in Williams’ life began in July 2010 when, just four days after winning her fourth Wimbledon singles title, she stepped on broken glass when leaving a Munich restaurant with only a pair of sandals protecting her feet. Williams looked down to see a pool of blood emerging from a multitude of cuts and, most worryingly, from a lacerated tendon in her right foot.
She needed two bouts of surgery, followed by 10 weeks in a cast and a further 10 in a protective boot, to recover. Before she could, however, the pulmonary embolism forced her back into the operating room. The winner of 16 Grand Slams was facing one of the toughest fights of her 18-year career.
“It was a really big nightmare for me,” she tells Sport when we meet ahead of the year’s final Grand Slam – the US Open, where she’ll be looking to win her fifth singles title. “But I feel like what happened to me – everything that I went through – released a lot of pressure. I feel a lot lighter now, like I don’t have anything to prove. I don’t feel any pressure to do anything.”
Something Williams has felt since her return, though, is the pull of the sport to which the 31-year-old has devoted her life. In the documentary Venus and Serena, a film that follows the sisters throughout the 2011 season and was released just before this year’s Wimbledon, there are two particularly telling scenes.
In one, Serena is holding on to a walking frame for balance while throwing punches and kicks in the direction of a TV – one presumably screening the latest Davina McCall fitness DVD, or similar. In the other, she can be seen hitting volleys on a tennis court from the confines of a wheelchair, her lower right leg encased in a huge boot. Williams’ obstinate refusal to accept being a sofa-bound patient is clear.
“I just couldn’t take it any more” she says, recalling the point at which her patience snapped. “I had to get out there. And I thought I would come back faster if I could just get back on the court. So I thought: ‘Okay, I’ll work on my volleys – I’ll do something.’ That [coming back faster] wasn’t to be, but it showed me how much love I have for the sport, which surprised me. I didn’t expect that.”
She won’t be alone. Not many people will have expected such strength of feeling from an athlete who has endured a famously stormy relationship with her sport. But Ben Rothenberg, contributing writer to The New York Times, tells Sport that Williams’ feelings are not such a contradiction. “She’s obviously someone who, even if she’s not obsessed with tennis, has still made it her life’s work to try and perfect her craft,” he says. “And that takes a fair amount of passion, drive and commitment, all the same. And I know that she watches tennis when she’s not playing – Venus does too. They watch the Tennis Channel quite a bit when they’re at home in Florida.”
The summer of 2011 marked Williams’ return to competition. She signed up to play at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park as a warm-up for Wimbledon, raising excitement levels among the local blue-rinse brigade to new heights.
“This has given me a whole new perspective on life and my career,” an emotional Williams told the gathered press. “I’m just taking one day at a time. I’m not preparing for today, or for Wimbledon. I’m preparing for the rest of my career.”
While her health was clearly back on track, her tennis was understandably below the Williams standard. Her trip to the south coast ended with defeat to top seed Vera Zvonareva in the second round. And not long afterwards, as the defending Wimbledon champion, she would go on to lose in the round of 16 at SW19, sending her world ranking plummeting to 175 – her lowest in 14 years.
It wasn’t until the following summer that Williams got herself back to Grand Slam-winning ways. Little more than a month after being ousted in the first round of the French Open – a defeat she says made her more miserable than any other, and which led her into the arms of French coach Patrick Mouratoglou – she won her fifth Wimbledon singles title. Olympic gold in London quickly followed, and then it was on to the US Open – a tournament that brought her the unbridled joy of winning her first Grand Slam, way back in 1999, and which provided the stage for the moments of madness that marred her performances in 2009 and 2011.
Last year, it simply brought her a fourth US Open title. “It felt really, really good,” she says, recalling her three-set win over Victoria Azarenka in the final. “It felt like it was just time for me to win that title again, after some tough years there. To stand there and hold that winner’s trophy (above) after everything – after winning Wimbledon and after winning the Olympics – was almost unbelievable. Going into it, I honestly didn’t think I’d win the Open – I was just going through the motions, and the next thing I knew I was holding the trophy.”
One year on, and Williams has added a second French Open title to her CV. “It was the only one I hadn’t been able to win twice, so I was really excited,” she says. “I know that could come off
a little weird...”
Victory in Paris represented her 16th in a Grand Slam, and made her only the fourth woman in the Open era to win every Slam twice or more.
“I knew that everyone thought I should have won it twice already, so it was like: why haven’t I been able to raise my level on the clay and get that title?” she says. “In all the Slams I’ve won, I’d probably put it in the top three.”
Speaking in fluent-sounding French for part of her victory speech in Paris, it was clear that Williams has developed a strong bond with the city where she owns a modest apartment and can easily indulge her taste for miniature chocolate pastries, among other things. “I love the city,” she adds. “Have you ever noticed how even it is? They have a code that you can’t go past a certain height with the buildings on one side of Paris. You can see the sky, the trees – in spring and summer it’s really beautiful.”
On the defensive
It is perhaps a little disconcerting to hear Serena Williams – the most powerful, dominating force in women’s tennis – waxing lyrical about nature. In the past, she has been guilty of being as combative off the court as she is on it, never fearful of aiming a verbal smash in the direction of any interviewer she feels is deserving.
But Rothenberg says her experiences over the past few years have changed her approach: “She’s more engaging now, more friendly and she just seems to be enjoying the whole process more. Before, it seemed like it was a chore for her sometimes. But she’s lightened up significantly and now seems to be treating the whole thing more as fun than a burden.”
That theory was put to the test at Wimbledon this year when, having gone into the tournament as the overwhelming favourite to notch a sixth singles title at SW19, Williams was beaten at her own power game by Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round. It was a defeat that she admits was tough to swallow, but in the immediate aftermath she was measured, informing the press it was not the ‘shock’ result many were labelling it “I mean, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but she’s a great grass-court player,” she said at the time. “C’mon, guys, let’s get with it. She’s excellent. She’s not a pushover. She’s a great player.”
Going into Grand Slams as defending champion – as Williams will be in New York – is a situation with which she is by now familiar, but it has no less of an effect on her for that.
“I always feel under pressure when it comes to Slams,” she says. “But I definitely feel more nervous when I’m going in as defending champion. No matter what people say, I never feel unbeatable – because the moment you start to feel invincible, that’s when you fall and you fail.”
In the weeks leading up to the Slams, Williams admits she goes through the same mental processes season after season. “I’m always more intense in the week leading up to one,” she says. “And I get more focused, too – on and off court.”
There is one aspect of her approach that has changed over the years, though. “I train more now,” she says simply. “When I was younger, I didn’t actually have to train as much. When you’re young, you can go on court for a week and you feel like you’ve trained for two months.”
Rothenberg agrees that Williams is “practising more intently now”, adding: “She is also being more consistent in her approach to matches and tournaments. She doesn’t show up for the small tournaments and give a less-than-full effort any more, which she occasionally used to do. Since she has started working with Patrick (Mouratoglou), she’s had a lot of success at smaller tournaments, and that’s something she didn’t do as much before. She was always good at the big events, but she’s now a more consistent player.”
Williams’ record in 2013 supports this theory. Outside her French Open win, and discounting her Miami title (a tournament that would be outraged at being labelled small) she has won six titles in 2013 – not a bad haul for a woman who has been playing at the top level for more than a decade. “I’m playing some of the best tennis of my career,” she smiles. “And I’m having fun. I’m enjoying every moment I step out on court. I just want to do the best I can now and, if I lose... well, two years ago I was in the hospital almost dead, so it can’t be that bad.”
The world number one will take that mentality to Flushing Meadows next week, when she returns to an arena that at one stage threatened to hold as many bad memories for her as good. “It’s almost intimidating sometimes,” says Williams of New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium. “I’m playing in my home country and in the biggest stadium in tennis, but it’s a special feeling to step out there as an American.”
Special feelings aside, it was to the relief of every US tennis fan when her victory at last year’s Open was achieved without the controversy that has landed her with some hefty fines from the Grand Slam Committee.
Rothenberg believes Williams still has work to do before the New York crowds take her to their heart as wholly as they have done previous American champions. “They’re not 100 per cent behind her,” he says. “I don’t think she’s a niversally beloved figure in New York, in the way that someone like Andre Agassi was, but I do think she has more support now than she used to. People saw what the lows were like for her with the hospitalisation, and she has gained a lot of respect for how she’s come back. I think that will keep on growing the more she continues to mature – and the more it becomes clear that she’s one of the all-time greats in the sport.”
Williams herself admits that she won’t look back on her career as a whole until she is regarded as one of the greats. “I don’t like to look at it right now, while I’m still playing, because I still feel like I want to play,” she insists. “If I start to think about it, then I might be like: ‘Okay, why am I still playing? I could be relaxing at home with my two dogs.’ I definitely want to go out when I’m at the top, or somewhere close to the top. But when? I don’t know.”
Williams laughs. “Venus says she wants to play until she’s 40. I told her she’s crazy. But then, when I was 21, I said that I’d never play when I’m 30. Anyway, I’m gonna say it right now: I’m not gonna play when I’m 40. So, we’ll see.”