Serena Williams won her first singles title since giving birth, defeating unseeded American Jessica Pegula 6-3, 6-4 to win the ASB Classic on Sunday in Auckland, New Zealand.
Though the implications for next week’s Australian Open are unclear, it was abundantly clear how much this long-awaited victory meant to the 38-year-old Williams.
After finishing off the match with a backhand winner down the line, she thrust both arms into the air, looked skyward and roared for several seconds.
“Finally,” she said to herself after shaking Pegula’s hand.
It had been almost three years since Williams’s last title, which came at the 2017 Australian Open when she was, unbeknown to the wider world, nearly two months pregnant with her daughter, Olympia.
Since returning to the tour in early 2018, six months after giving birth, Williams reached five other finals, failing to win a set in any of them.
Big-match nerves have been an issue. So has the quality of the opposition.
But Williams, despite all that she has achieved in more than 20 years on tour, including 23 Grand Slam singles wins, is still hungry for more. That was obvious in Auckland, as she launched her 2020 season by fighting off the rust and a series of much younger opponents, including 18-year-old Amanda Anisimova, an American on the rise who was not yet born when Williams won her first Grand Slam singles title at the 1999 U.S. Open.
Williams’s 6-1, 6-1 demolition of the 25th-ranked Anisimova in the semifinals was her most impressive performance of the week, but she also hit plenty of high notes against Pegula, the daughter of Buffalo Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula. After losing her opening service game, Williams fell behind, 1-3.
From there, she settled into a deeper groove. Though she finished with only two aces, she did not drop her serve again, generating her trademark depth and power from the baseline and also looking unusually sharp as she transitioned to the net.
Down the stretch, she produced a deft drop shot and touch volley winners. And when it came time to close out the match at 5-4 in the second set, she held serve at love to win her 73rd tour singles title.
“It feels good,” Williams said. “It’s been a long time. I’ve been waiting two years for this moment. I think you could see the relief on my face.”
As word spread of Williams’s victory, you could also see the admiration on the faces of her fellow professionals.
“I think it’s truly incredible that she’s still at the top of the game so many years later,” said Madison Keys, the 24-year-old American who reached the Brisbane International final on Sunday and lost to Karolina Pliskova.
“She has everything,” Keys said of Williams. “And when you’re playing her and you feel like you’re playing some of your best tennis, she just has another level. And the ability to do that year after year is just incredible.”
The next challenge for Williams will be translating her promising form into success at the Australian Open, where she will try again to win her 24th Grand Slam singles title and tie Margaret Court’s record.
Williams, who donated her singles prize money of about $43,000 to Australian fire relief, did not face the tour elite in Auckland. None of her five singles opponents were in the top 20, and only Anisimova was in the top 70.
Williams struggled in the second round against the 86th ranked Christina McHale, looking edgy and dropping the opening set before finding her range and shaking free to win 3-6, 6-2, 6-3.
McHale, like an increasing number of players, was able to hold her own against Williams’s power. But matching Williams’s staying power is quite another matter.
She has now won a title in the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s and the 2020s.
She won her first tour singles title nearly 21 years ago, in February 1999 at an indoor event in Paris. That span surpasses one achieved by Martina Navratilova, long the benchmark for enduring excellence in women’s tennis. She had a nearly 20-year span between her first and last tour singles titles (September 1974 to February 1994).
Williams continues to break new ground and though it is very safe to say that she will never match Navratilova’s Open-era record of 167 singles titles, Court’s Grand Slam record remains in definite peril.
Winning No. 24 would likely be the most remarkable achievement of Williams’s career after all she has experienced and overcome in the last three years.
But perhaps the most remarkable part is that winning it would come as no great surprise.
“I mean, she’s been in multiple finals,” Keys said. “I don’t think anyone is thinking that she can’t.”
Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting from Brisbane, Australia.