“I just have to figure out a way to win a final,” Serena Williams said at Wimbledon last summer, after losing the championship match to Simona Halep. “Maybe playing other finals outside Grand Slams would be really helpful, just to kind of get in the groove, so by the time I get to a Grand Slam final I’m kind of used to what to do and how to play.”
Six months after she uttered those words, Serena has found her final-round groove at last. On Sunday, at the ASB Classic in Auckland, she beat fellow American Jessica Pegula 6-3, 6-4 to win her first title since her victory at the 2017 Australian Open. In the three years since, she had lost five finals, including four at Grand Slam events, all in straight sets.
“It’s pretty satisfying to get a win in the final,” Williams said, while announcing that she would donate her $43,000 champion’s check to help fight the wild fires in Australia. “That was really important for me, and I just want to build on it.”
Now the question is: Does winning an Australian Open tune-up event increase her chances of winning the Australian Open itself?
All you can say right now is: It can’t hurt. Serena lost just one set in Auckland, and she demolished the highest-ranked player she faced, Amanda Anisimova, 6-1, 6-1. She beat another solid opponent in Camila Giorgi, came back from a set down against Christina McHale, and bounced back from an early 0-2 deficit to beat Pegula. While Serena made her share of errors, and struggled coming out of the gates in a couple matches, she also showed that she’s going to do whatever it takes to compete her way to victory in Australia this month.
“You have to be your biggest cheerleader, especially if you’re feeling you’re not doing everything right,” Serena said. “Or even if you are doing everything right, but things aren’t working out for you.”
What did Serena do right against Pegula, that she hadn’t done in her other finals over the last three years?
First, she didn’t let a slow start get out of control. Down 0-2 to begin the match, Serena fell behind 15-30 on her serve, and tried a drop shot that Pegula easily tracked down and put away for winner. Serena looked toward her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, and shrugged as if to say: I don’t know what to do.
Serena may not have known what shot to hit at that moment, but she did know how to fight. From 15-40 down, she grunted, shouted, and exhorted her way back into that service game. It took everything she had to hold, but she was on the board.
That fact seemed to allow Serena to relax, play within herself, and stop trying to do too much. She broke serve by dialing back the pace, hitting with more margin, and watching as Pegula’s forehands went awry. Suddenly, Serena’s game began to flow: Her backhands were well-measured, her return was sharper, and her serve was, well, her serve. She was breathing hard, but she was making shots.
“My ground strokes were probably the strongest thing in that match,” Serena said, while noting that she didn’t “hit a tremendous amount of aces.” “It’s good for me to win matches where I’m not getting too many free points.”
Serena surmounted Pegula, who is ranked No. 64, by playing within herself and not relying too heavily on her serve. Is that a recipe for success against higher-quality opponents? It could be: We’ve seen Serena step back and win big finals with consistency, rather than blistering pace, before. And with Bianca Andreescu pulling out of the Australian Open, Serena won’t have to find a way to beat the woman who knocked her out in last year’s US Open final.
“It’s just a step toward the next goal,” Serena said of her win in Auckland.
Before today, Serena won 72 finals in her two decades on tour. Getting another in Melbourne will be harder, but at 38, after three years spent outside the winner’s circle, it must feel good to know there are more titles—Grand Slam or otherwise—in her future.