“Do not judge me by my successes,” Nelson Mandela once said, “judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” These words echoed through my mind watching Serena Williams come through an absorbing third-round contest against Kristina Mladenovic, the world No 62, from France.
I remember interviewing Williams in Qatar in 2009, and measuring the sheer grit of this remarkable woman. Someone who alternated between beds as a child, sharing with her sisters, because she didn’t have one of her own; who learnt to play tennis on bullet-ridden courts in Los Angeles; who endured outright racism as well as the more subtle social barriers that continue to disfigure American society, despite the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation.
A woman who lost her beloved sister, gunned down on the streets in 2003. Her surprisingly soft eyes filled with tears when talking about that formative event. “I still find it difficult to talk about what happened with Tunde,” she said. “She was nine years older and like a second mother. She called me ‘kid’ and took me clothes shopping . . . I had been talking to Tunde on the phone earlier that day and she had been real excited about what was going on in her life, and mine. I just couldn’t make sense of it. It was like something out of a dream.”
It is symptomatic that when she descended into depression after this bereavement, dropping down the world rankings, she garnered little sympathy. Chris Evert wrote an open letter saying that she was tarnishing her legacy. One Australian newspaper described her as a “fat cow”. But Williams has measured her career, her life, by her capacity to overcome adversity. She returned to winning ways after her slump at the 2007 Australian Open, and has since won 15 grand-slam titles. This is a unique athlete, and a unique woman.
And that is the broader context I couldn’t help reflecting upon while watching Williams on a sun-drenched Centre Court. She was broken by Mladenovic in the fifth game of the first set, and at that point, the seven-times champion looked in trouble. Her opponent was hitting fluently, confidently, and Williams, still relatively early into her comeback after giving birth last year, was a fraction off the pace. She found her way back into the set, finding fresh inspiration, particularly in the eighth game when she broke back. This was Williams the street fighter, her underrated tactical brain working overtime to probe her opponent’s weaknesses.
There was hunger, too; the hunger symptomatic of the truly great champions. Williams is not satisfied with 23 grand-slam titles, with 16 doubles titles including two mixed, and dozens of other accolades, sporting and otherwise. She wants to overtake the record of Margaret Court, who has 24 grand-slam singles titles, to take women’s tennis into new terrain, to prove to herself that she can redefine the limits of the game. She is here at Wimbledon for one reason only: to win. That is her currency.
The second set was thrilling; Mladenovic demonstrated her own version of tenacity to take it to a tie-break. The rallies ebbed and flowed, showcasing, yet again, the marvellous aesthetic of women’s grass-court tennis. Mladenovic saved a match point at 5-6, and it looked as if she might extend the contest into a deciding set. But Williams was implacable at the beginning of the tie-break, hitting with more penetration, flirting with the lines, hitting two straight aces to close out the match, the first hit at 116mph. Her fist pump at the denouement felt like a warning to the field.
“I just feel like I have nothing to lose at this point,” she said afterwards. “I want to try harder. I think to myself, ‘Is this the best that I can do? Can I do more?’ Lots of things go through my brain. Sometimes other things go through my brain. So yeah, I just keep going . . . When I’m in that groove, I always say certain things to myself. I haven’t played in a while, so I’m trying to get back in that groove of what I say and what I do, how I think, how I approach the game.”
This was Williams’s latest victory since giving birth, an event that she has described both as one of the most beautiful moments of her life, and one of the most perilous. “First my C-section wound popped open due to the intense coughing I endured as a result of the embolism,” she said in a recent interview. “I returned to surgery, where the doctors found a large hematoma, a swelling of clotted blood, in my abdomen. And then I returned to the operating room for a procedure that prevents clots from travelling to my lungs.” In her own words, she “almost died”.
Few gave her much chance of returning with the vigour she has shown. She pulled out of the French Open with injury before her fourth-round match with Maria Sharapova, and some predicted an early departure here in SW19. So far, she has subverted that narrative, finding a way to win three straight matches without dropping a set.
“It’s amazing for me to be out here,” she added. “A year ago I was still pregnant. Then my delivery took a turn south fast, so that wasn’t fun,” she said. “But it’s that that makes me appreciate that I’m out here, that I’m alive, that I’m able to be here and do well and to play well. I’ve had other injuries, like my foot injury was really hard for me. I really came back and took a lot of pride on coming back with that one. I think those two are kind of the same.”
Only two of the top-ten seeds remain and Williams must now be among the favourites. “Not many other people on the tour have won 23, so I’m in a unique position,” she said. “I mean, Roger is very close. He’s catching up. He’s right there. I can see him [smiling]. There’s only a handful of people that can say that they don’t have to do anything else in their career.”
Williams has achieved plenty; she is a cultural icon as much as a sportswoman. But to win here, to another grand-slam title so soon after giving birth, would add a new dimension to her greatness. She is not yet on top form, but this is an athlete who knows how to win. And she knows, too, how to pick herself up when she has been knocked down.