One year ago this week, Serena Williams made her return to tennis after the birth of her first child. Unfortunately, this anniversary week went the way so many others have for her over the last 12 months: A promising performance was followed by a surprising—and in this case concerning—disappointment.
On Friday night, Serena looked like her old self and then some when she beat Victoria Azarenka in a blistering contest that approached the level of their fiercest Grand Slam contests from years past. For 15 minutes or so on Sunday, Serena looked as if she would maintain that level when she broke out to a 3-0 lead over Garbiñe Muguruza. But by the fourth game it was obvious that there was something not right with Serena. She walked slowly between points, stared at the ground, and put her hand up to her forehead. Soon she was a step behind during the points as well. After losing six straight games and the set, she called for the trainer; after coming back out for one more game, she retired with what was later called a viral illness.
“Extreme dizziness and extreme fatigue,” which “got worse every second,” is how Serena described it later.
This pattern—glorious return to form followed by demoralizing exit—has held true, in one form or another, for much of the past year.
At the French Open last spring, Serena fought through three rounds and beat two seeds before having to withdraw from a fourth-round encounter against Maria Sharapova with a pectoral strain. At Wimbledon, she dropped just one set in her first six matches, only to falter at the finish line against Angelique Kerber. At the US Open, she reigned supreme against Karolina Pliskova and Anastasija Sevastova in the quarters and semis, only to lose to Naomi Osaka in the chaotic title match. At this year’s Australian Open, Serena won a high-class, three-set struggle over Simona Halep in the fourth round, and led Karolina Pliskova 5-1 in the third in the quarterfinals, before turning her ankle and losing six straight games.
On each of these occasions, Serena’s defeat has come as a surprise, but the pattern itself is hardly shocking. She’s 37, she’s had a child, she was away from the game for more than a year, and since returning, she hasn’t been able to put together a run of wins long enough to help her build the kind of momentum that carries over from one tournament to the next. She’s yet to win a title over those 12 months, which means she never walks away from an event entirely happy with where her game is. Sometimes, as with her illness today, the result is out of her hands.
So maybe it’s a good time to remember that few players in the Open era have won many titles at 37. Serena herself is already the oldest women’s Grand Slam champion, having won her 23rd major at the 2017 Australian Open, at age 35. As Rod Laver has said about playing in your 30s, you can still reach the heights you once did it, but it’s tougher to stay there day after day.
Maybe it’s a good time to remember the heights that Serena reached just two days ago, in her opening match against Azarenka. It was as if two old friends had reconnected and taken each other back in time. After a shaky start, Azarenka began to walk with her old, determined stride, and she tracked down virtually everything Serena threw at her. At the same time, Serena rose to Azarenka’s challenge, thrived on her pace, and answered with her best tennis in a year.
After that throwback thriller, it was clear: Serena can play as well as she ever has. At some point, some week, over the next 12 months, she’s going to do it long enough to hold another trophy.