Serena Williams has been the talk of the tennis community this week thanks to her return to the BNP Paribas Open after a well-documented 14-year boycott.
But don’t worry, this isn’t another one of those Indian Wells-specific think pieces or open letters.
On today’s special #SundayNightShots, TTI will be looking at the WTA No.1’s comeback from a different perspective. Williams has made several comebacks in her career – not only from a myriad of injuries, but in quite a few important matches on some of the sport’s biggest stages.
Her mental strength and her ability to fight back in matches truly is a shot all its own.
The younger Williams sister’s on-court tenacity has been one of her biggest assets throughout her career. Although fans are used to seeing the 19-time major champion dominate opponents, there remains occasional instances where her supremacy over the women’s game is challenged.
As a young star on the rise, she wasn’t always the best closer – physical and mental struggles pocked the early stages of her career, leaving many to (foolishly, in hindsight) question her durability and longevity. It wasn’t until she was “tired of being No. 10” that the unbreakable Serena Williams we know today truly came to be.
It’s fair to say that a major contributing factor to the top ranked American’s relentless competitive mentality is that, quite simply, she knows how good she is. She has so few weaknesses in her game that if one shot in her repertoire isn’t working, she can rely on another to compensate.
This comfort and versatility of her own game hasn’t always been a there – particularly early in her career – but it has been what sets her power game apart from her sister’s: the willingness to make proactive and reactive adjustments in tight situations.
(Having one of the greatest shots in tennis history helps, too.)
Williams’ serve is indisputably the best in the game. Pace, placement, consistency, high quality second serve delivery; even at its worst, the serve gets the top seed out of losing positions just as much as it allows her to glide over the finish line. The pressure she places on opponents to execute on return provides breathing room for when her ground game is on the fritz.
Instead of the usual list of hits and misses for this week’s “shot,” we’ll be paying tribute to the Serena Williams comeback and take a look at seven of her most memorable. While they recall a different kind of mental strength than that mustered to return to Indian Wells this year, the following epics have underscored many focal moments in Serena Williams’ illustrious career.
7. vs. Maria Sharapova, 2013 Miami, F
Maria Sharapova, arguably the second most mentally tenacious player that the WTA has to offer, looked a hair’s breadth from finally notching a win over the recently re-crowned World No.1.
(Spoiler alert: she doesn’t).
The Russian played some of her best tennis against a surprisingly flat Williams in the first set, and even went up a break in the second – but it wasn’t to be.
Serena found her serve and, after clawing her way back to take the second set, never looked back: 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.
6. vs. Wozniacki, 2014 Singapore, SF
Caroline Wozniacki proved to be Williams’ greatest rival in the latter half of 2014, where both made up for relatively underwhelming starts to the year. Their rivalry was punctuated by this thriller in the season’s second to last WTA match.
After being blown out in the first set by her BFF’s surprisingly aggressive play, Williams took the second and broke the Dane when she served for the match. In the tiebreak, Williams came back once more – this time from two mini-breaks – to seal the win, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6(6).
5. vs. Dementieva, 2009 Wimbledon SF
In arguably the match of 2009, Elena Dementieva looked poised to make her first Slam final in nearly five years. Williams had other plans. The defending finalist dropped the first set (yet again – see a pattern?) and fought through gritty, determined play from her Russian rival, who had won three of their last four meetings, including a three-setter at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Saving a match point late in the third set, Williams scrapped until the end, eventually taking the win, 6-7(4), 7-5, 8-6 – and the whole tournament two days later.
4. vs. Kuznetsova, 2013 French Open QF
Coming into the tournament, Williams hadn’t won the French Open in eleven years – despite claiming many other prestigious clay titles since. Having rolled through her first four matches, she appeared to face little resistance from former champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The second set was a different story, as the Russian unleashed her vicious forehand to steal the set and mount a 2-0 lead in the third – with break points for a seemingly insurmountable double-break lead. Yet the World No. 1, once again, found form in a hopeless place, winning the next five games to eventually crush her opponent’s bid, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 and to go on to win that elusive second French Open title.
3. vs. Sharapova, 2005 Australian Open, SF
Many pundits and fans alike might agree that this was the match that ended the Williams-Sharapova rivalry – on only its fourth encounter. The tale is one we’ve heard before. Some inspired play by an aggressive and fearless Sharapova claimed the first set, and she would go on to serve for the match at 5-4 in the second.
Given her current 17-2 head-to-head record, Serena finding a way to beat Sharapova has become NID (never-in-doubt) in 2015. Ten years ago, it was a paltry 1-2. The American raised her level and hit all the lines in a dramatic, high quality semifinal affair that saw her steal the second set and even save match points in the third. The American would go on to win, 2-6, 7-5, 8-6, in a resounding display of mental resolve that would come to define her mastery over Sharapova for a decade to come.
2. vs. Azarenka, 2010 Australian Open, QF
Victoria Azarenka, once known for the fiery temper to match her fiery style of tennis, was on the cusp of a statement win over Williams. In the scorching heat of the Australian sun, she repeated her 2009 feat of taking the first set (she would retire from that match with heat exhaustion).
This time, however, she built a 4-0 lead in the second and seemed to be sprinting towards the finish line against erratic opposition. Yet, sure as the sun rises and sets, Serena slowly clawed her way back to a tiebreak, emphatically winning it before easily taking the third set and the match 4-6 7-6(2) 6-2, completing one of her most impressive comebacks by the numbers – and the stat sheet.
1. vs. Clijsters, 2003 Australian Open, SF
Quality of opponent, stage of the tournament, and context of her career – this match had some of the highest stakes and Williams found a way to win it. A young, in-form Kim Clijsters was the World No.1’s opponent that day at the Australian Open, in the semifinals of a tournament that the American needed to win to capture a historic fourth major in a row.
Clijsters had lost a mere fifteen games en route to the semis, and mounted a 5-1 lead in the final set against Williams after a tightly contested first two sets. There’s clearly something in the Australian air that inspires Williams – or perhaps it’s just a instinctive toughness – allowing her to save two match points and win the next six games, taking the match, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. The World No. 1 would go on to play an equally competitive match against sister Venus in the final, eventually succeeding in achieving her “Serena Slam.”
What is your favorite Serena Williams comeback? Sound off in the comments!