By Simon Jennings
(Reuters) – Serena Williams’ return to the U.S. Open for the first time since becoming a mother will be an emotional experience, not least because her daughter Alexis-Olympia’s first birthday is right in the middle of the tournament.
Serena will have the fans firmly behind her in New York and the 36-year-old is also the bookmakers’ favourite to win a 24th Grand Slam title and equal Australian Margaret Court’s record haul after the American’s run to this year’s Wimbledon final.
The number 17 seed has spoken openly about the challenges she has faced trying to combine being a mum and a professional tennis player, and 18-times Grand Slam winner Chris Evert says Serena must find a way to channel her emotions on court.
“To turn the switch on and off (between being a tennis player and a mother) is very difficult, and that’s what Serena’s trying to navigate,” Evert, who will be part of ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. Open in New York, said on a conference call.
“She’s never had this nurturing feeling… before. It doesn’t switch on and off. Even if it’s not consciously there when she’s on court, it’s in the back of her mind and it will creep in once in a while because she’s not a robot.”
Serena’s first tournament after Wimbledon ended in the heaviest defeat of her career when she was thrashed 6-1 6-1 by Britain’s Johanna Konta in San Jose and the six-times U.S. Open champion also made an early exit in Cincinnati this month.
There is little doubt, however, about her ability to raise her game when the occasion demands it, and an indomitable spirit makes her the most fearsome opponent in the women’s game.
“I know one thing, never underestimate Serena,” former player Brad Gilbert said on the same call as Evert. “If she can get through the first week… she becomes a different player.”
One knock-on effect of Serena’s maternity leave is that she has lost some of her aura of invincibility, with opponents now more likely to try and take the game to her.
“Two years ago when people took the court against her, they were just hoping not to get beat 6-1 6-1. They were 4-0 (down) out of the tunnel, and these top five and top 10 players would get blown out before even walking on the court,” Gilbert added.
“Every great player in the history of the game builds up equity by crushing people, and then all of a sudden when that doesn’t happen… people (think) you know what, I have a chance today.”
If Serena triumphs she will move past the record number of U.S. Open titles she shares with Evert, and add her name to the ranks of Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters as the only mothers to win Grand Slams in the professional era.
“Even more than the physical part, the emotional part is the toughest one to try to figure out for Serena to be successful… and also to feel guilt-free that she’s spending enough time with her child,” Evert added.
Serena’s career as a working mother has only just begun but she is clear about her priorities off and on the court.
“For me, being around her (Alexis-Olympia) every day is super important. I want her to have just a great upbringing, the best way I know how,” she told the Today show this week.
“I’m still trying to compete and win Grand Slams, and most of all, do it while I have a daughter.”
(Reporting by Simon Jennings in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris)