With a crisply hit backhand down the line, the crowd erupts and Serena Williams throws her arms up in the air, clinching both fists. She takes a deep breath in and exhales out what seems like years of tension around whether she would win another title. Serena's 2020 triumph in Auckland—her first as a mother—was undoubtedly a big deal, but she's still searching for Grand Slam No. 24.
At the Yarra Valley Classic, Serena has delivered impressive straight-set wins over Daria Gavrilova and Tsvetana Pironkova to kickstart her 2021 season, her fourth season in which she will vie for an all-time record-tying 24th major title. The former world No. 1's first round performance against Gavrilova caught the eye of fellow former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport who spoke with TENNIS.com after the match.
"She looked really good; I was really impressed," Davenport said. "We know the serve is most likely going to be there for the rest of her career, the powerful groundstrokes. I look at more how she's moving, getting up to short balls. Is she taking the little steps to take balls earlier?"
Serena was taking care of those details against the Aussie. She stepped into the court without hesitation and used her feet to take time away from her opponent. Those little things are what can potentially lead the 39-year-old to another major title. For Davenport, it's not about Serena's ability to play excellent defense so much as whether she's using her footwork to dictate points.
"It's going to be a Grand Slam like we've never, ever seen before. You look at all the variables some players are having to deal with in real-time, not a lot of notice," Davenport said.
Although Serena had to adapt to unusual circumstances and undergo a 14-day quarantine in Adelaide, she was among the few that had the opportunity to practice and get outdoors up to five hours each day. Seventy-two other players can not say the same as they were confined to their hotel rooms for two full weeks after coming in close contact with individuals who later tested positive for COVID-19 on their respective flights.
Serena arrives in Adelaide, Australia with daughter Olympia (Getty Images)
The 2021 Australian Open's later start date also presented Serena with more time to recover from the Achilles injury that hindered her at the US Open and ultimately forced her out of last year's Roland Garros. Still, Serena will have to adapt to unfamiliar territory in order to embrace the moment. With her last major title coming in Melbourne back in 2017, Davenport believes it can happen again on the icy blue courts Down Under.
"I absolutely think she has a chance in Australia," Davenport said. "From what I've heard from the players down there, the conditions are pretty fast this year. They have been the last few years. That has not changed this year. That definitely helps Serena."
The quick courts in Melbourne give Serena's powerful game a boost, but her aggressive style of play—combined with precise footwork—can help her hoist another major trophy. The three-time major champion believes Serena can tie the record in Australia and ultimately break it, but even without two more majors, she already views her countrywoman as the greatest player of all time.
"It's a little bit unfortunate that this is the benchmark. I don't know if it even is for her. Maybe it's the media. She's been the greatest player we've ever seen. Does she need to get to 24, 25, to make everyone believe that? I don't think so."
Five or six years ago, Davenport sat down with Chanda Rubin, a former Top 10 player, and, after combing through tennis history, found the comparisons between Serena and Margaret Court, the current all-time record holder, are hardly apples-to-apples. Eleven of Court's major wins came at the Australian Open, where the fields were predominantly made up of other Australian players. In her earliest years, the draws consisted of only 32 players.
"Of course, that's not Margaret's fault. She played what was there, what she wanted to play. She was the winner. It's not easy to win that many times. It's almost like two separate records here. People love to say the best player of all time, that generation. You can't compare."
With 128-draws and everything Serena's accomplished on the court, Davenport feels it's this undue pressure bogging Williams down in her quest for another major victory.
"I feel like she has the record. It just seems like with everything she's accomplished, how long she's played, the tournaments that she won, the 128-draws. It just doesn't seem totally fair put this on Serena."
At this year's strange edition of the Australian Open, any storyline is possible. Just take a look at last season, from Sofia Kenin comeback against Garbiñe Muguruza to claim her first major title, to an unseeded Iga Swiatek's sweep through the Roland Garros draw to become the youngest champion on the terre battue since Rafael Nadal in 2005.
Considering Serena's last two titles came in Australia, the world may yet see her clinch her fists and raise her arms in triumph beneath the Melbourne lights. As long as she's ripping shots through the court, nothing's outside the lines.
"I say she ties it this year. I'm not sure if she breaks it. Two is a lot to win in one year, so I'll say she ties it," Davenport said.