At last year’s U.S. Open semifinal, fans across the world saw the shocking upset of Serena Williams by Roberta Vinci. After winning three grand slams that season, Williams was on the cusp of being the first woman since the 80’s to win all four Majors in the same year.
The frustration was clear on her face and her post-game press conference reflected it even more so. Her most poignant statement was the one she gave before the first question was even asked. “I won’t talk about how disappointed I am.”
That would be the last the world saw of Williams before she re-emerged at the Australian Open. She powered her way to the final and looked poised to restore order with another Slam to wash out the sting of the loss.
Instead, Angelique Kerber found a championship run in her and stunned Williams in the championship match. It was the first time she had been defeated in a final that went to the third set.
There was the scene: Standing before the Melbourne crowd next to Kerber with every camera keeping her in their field of vision. All of them waited to capture her moment of sadness or anger, of the frustration they knew she would show from failing herself once again.
She was brief, but she was gracious. Williams smiled and took in Kerber’s praise with humility, allowing herself to be truly flattered by her opponents words.
As Kerber continued, Williams smiled and applauded her opponent. Instead of showing the agony of defeat, she appreciated the moment of watching a fighter become a champion. Once upon a time, Williams experienced winning a Grand Slam for the first time. Now, she reflected on the special joy of that moment as she watched someone else celebrate the feeling for themselves.
Serena found herself on the bad side of a Final again this past weekend, this time against rival Victoria Azarenka at the BNP Paribas Open.
When the time came to receive the runner-up trophy, Williams instead allowed herself to show tears. They weren’t over the loss, Serena was grateful to the reception she had received at the tournament after having missed it for over a decade.
The circumstances of her absence from Indian Wells have been well chronicled. The controversy in 2001 was that it was believed that her father had fixed the semifinal match between herself and Venus for Serena to win. When Williams faced Kim Clijsters in the final, she received a level of jeers uncharacteristic for tennis fans. Her father claimed that there were racial slurs being hurled at him in the stands.
When Vika spoke about how inspired she was by William’s return to the tournament, the world number one continued to have tears stream down her cheeks. When the time came to take a photo with Azarenka, she graciously smiled and even poked fun at the moment. Her funny face drew laughter from Azarenka and the gathered crowd.
So here we are, with a different Serena Williams than the one we’ve grown accustomed to. Like many passionate players on the tour, she is respectful even in losses. However, we see an extra amount of grace lately and it’s surprising.
I don’t believe it’s a sign that she’s not as motivated to win. However, I do believe it’s a sign that she knows the end of her time at the top of the mountain is winding down. She is the same age as Roger Federer. She knows that all the hard work and athletic innovations in the world can not prevent the inevitable decline that comes with age.
Williams is on track to compete for another Major title this year. Of that I have no doubt. For now, we get enjoy this new side of Serena, one that is very befitting of her championship pedigree.