If asked to describe how Serena Williams has evolved from the player who debuted as a giggly teen in 1998, it would be accurate to say she’s matured into a realist.
The 36-year-old, now a wife and mother, is accustomed to being the best at almost every turn she’s taken in the game. There are 23 Grand Slam titles — one shy of current record-holder Margaret Court — to prove it.
On Saturday, the opportunity to tie Court’s record of 24 came and went as the Wimbledon trophy headed to Germany with Angelique Kerber, who was exacting in securing a 6-3, 6-3 win over Williams in only 65-minutes.
Williams would get emotional on the court, choking up as she spoke to the crowd: “It was such an amazing tournament for me. I was really happy to get this far. It’s obviously disappointing, but I can’t be disappointed because there’s so much to look forward to. To all the moms out there I was playing for you today, and I tried.”
Surely, deep inside Williams there is little tolerance for losing. That said, she also knew she came to Wimbledon with only three tournaments behind her, including a fourth-round French Open exit because of injury.
As hard as it might be to accept, she’s still working her way back following childbirth, being mom to 10-month-old Alexis Olympia, and surviving dangerous post-birth blood clots.
So while that champion mentality couldn’t abandon her completely, and did push her through six rounds here, there was an understanding in the end that a two-time Grand Slam champion such as Kerber was still too big an ask.
Instead of beating herself up about the defeat, she is viewing it as a positive.
“I think these two weeks have really showed me that, okay, I can compete,” Williams said.“Obviously I can compete for the long run in a Grand Slam. I can, you know, come out and be a contender to win Grand Slams.
“It was a great opportunity for me,” she added. “I didn’t know a couple of months ago where I was, where I would be, how I would do, how I would be able to come back. It was such a long way to see light at the end of the road, kind of.”
So, if Williams can be believed, she is looking forward because the future, and not the past, is where the possibilities exist. A 24th Grand Slam title is no longer in the offing here, but it could be waiting as soon as the U.S. Open in September.
“I feel like I have a ways to go,” she said. “This is literally just the beginning, literally just the beginning. It’s good to just continue that path and just continue to keep going for me."
Williams said the seven matches she’s played have helped her assess what she needs to do on the journey ahead.
“I just got the fact of things I want to work on for the future, things that I want to do, try and execute that. … I just feel like I’m taking the steps in the right direction. I took a giant step at Wimbledon.”
As intoxicating as being back on the court and playing at a high enough level to make a Grand Slam final is, she also now knows there are more important things in life than hitting a fuzzy yellow ball with a tennis racket.
“My priority is my baby, you know,” Williams said. “Just being with her, doing things with her, spending time with her. That’s totally my priority.”
And as she left Wimbledon for another year, carrying off the finalists reward instead of an eighth Wimbledon winner’s trophy, she did so by sending a message to other mothers in the world.
“Well, I’d just like to tell all the moms, like, I had such a long struggle to come back and it was really difficult,” she said. “Honestly, I feel like if I can do it, they can do it. I’m just that person, that vessel that’s saying, ‘You can be whatever you want to be.’ If you want to go back to work, and to me, after becoming a mom, I feel like there’s no pressure to do that because having a child is a completely full-time job.
“But to those that do want to go back, you can do it, you can really do it."