Today is a very special day in the tennis world, as one of the sport’s biggest icons, Serena Williams, turns 39—and it comes on the eve of Roland Garros, her 10th major back on tour as a mom.
"I honestly never thought I would be playing at my age," Williams told reporters in Paris on her birthday. "I mean, I don't quite look 39. But yeah, I don't know when it's going to stop for me. I just have fun. When I feel it's over, it's over.
"But I could have guaranteed and pretty much bet my life that I would not have been playing at 39. This is why I don't bet."
Williams has been unable to win the elusive 24th Grand Slam singles title, but she’s come extremely close, reaching four finals—Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018, then Wimbledon and the US Open again in 2019. She very nearly made a fifth final in Flushing Meadows two weeks ago, holding break point for a 6-1, 2-0 lead against Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals before falling, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.
"I think a semifinal is always great," Williams said about the result, but added: "Is it great for me? Absolutely not. That's just how I feel. That's how I always feel. It is what it is.
"I'm happy that I can feel that way. And really there was nothing I could do. Yeah, there was nothing I could do in the end. It was what it was. I mean, I'm in a position in my career where I cannot be satisfied. I don't want to sit here and say, Oh, I'm happy. Because I'm not."
In New York, she was asked how much of a goal it is to get to—and break—Margaret Court’s record.
“I’ve been definitely proudly stuck here, party of one. I’m pretty happy about it,” she joked.
“Obviously I’m never satisfied. That’s been the story of my career. So yeah, it is what it is. I took a year and a half off for a baby. So I don’t know. It’s like I’ll never be satisfied until I retire. I’m never going to stop until I retire. It’s just my personality. That’s how I got to be here, so yeah.”
And with questions about breaking records at a certain age, or as a mom, she’s not concerned.
“Well, I think when you’re a mom, you overcome so much just to become that, and to be that,” she said during her run to the US Open semifinals this year. “And then I feel like, you know, age is really how you feel mentally, and how your body is doing and how you physically are able to keep up.
“If you think of it as just a number, then that’s all it is. People say you’re not going to do something at a certain age, but with technology and time, we can kind of make that age a little bit longer.”
Serena’s had a bit of a difficult time at Roland Garros in recent years—this is the only major she hasn’t been to the quarterfinals of since returning to the tour, reaching the fourth round in 2018 before having to withdraw due to a pectoral injury, then falling in the third round in 2019 to Sofia Kenin.
But she’s had some magical moments on the terre battue in years past, kicking off her first Serena Slam by lifting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in 2002, then winning it twice more in a span of three years in 2013 and 2015. She’s actually one of only two active players, male or female, to have won Roland Garros multiple times, alongside Rafael Nadal—who’s won it a ridiculous 12 times.
"I didn't play any tune-ups, which is really rare," said Williams about her Roland Garros preparation. "But this whole year has been really rare.
"After New York I flew to France and I've just been training at Patrick [Mouratolgou]'s academy, mostly rehabbing, trying to be, yeah, ready. So that was basically what it was, rehab and training."
No player in the Open Era, male or female, has won a major at 38 or older, so the now-39-year-old Serena would be the first. The current record belongs to Ken Rosewall, who was 37 when he won the 1972 Australian Open. Serena holds the women’s record, winning the 2017 Australian Open at 35.
Three moms have won majors in the Open Era: Court won three at the Australian Open, French Open and US Open in 1973, Evonne Goolagong won two at the Australian Open in 1977 and Wimbledon in 1980, and Kim Clijsters won three at the 2009 US Open, 2010 US Open and 2011 Australian Open.
How does Serena feel about meeting this challenge?
"I'm here. I wouldn't be playing if I didn't think I could perform," she said on Saturday. "I'm not at 100 percent physically. But I don't know any athlete that ever plays physically when they're feeling perfect. That's just something I think as athletes we have to play with."