Serena Williams: Comeback has blueprint, will 'take a while'

By Alex Butler  |  Updated March 19, 2018 at 3:48 PM
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March 19 (UPI) -- Somehow, Serena Williams softly sells the idea of winning as if she has never done it before. She says it's important to do it again but knows it will take time.

In the back of her mind is a restless competitor -- maybe the fiercest the sports world has ever known -- screaming for that victory to come yesterday.

On Monday, Williams stood with a shovel in hand.

She was among a cast of business moguls assembled at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, WME-IMG President Mark Shapiro and former tennis star James Blake joined Williams for a groundbreaking ceremony for the 2019 Miami Open, which will move from Key Biscayne to the Dolphins' home field.

Williams, 36, is listed at No. 491 in the WTA singles rankings, an unheard-of spot for the 23-time Grand Slam champion. The woman with 72 WTA singles titles and more than $84 million in career prize money will face Indian Wells champ Naomi Osaka on Wednesday afternoon in the round of 128 at this year's Miami Open.

Williams -- who hasn't won a tournament since claiming the 2017 Australian Open while two months pregnant -- is on an unparalleled comeback tour to claim a 73rd WTA win and eventually a record-tying 24th Grand Slam.

"[A win] would mean a lot to me," Williams said. "But right now, I'm taking a little bit at a time. I feel like every week I'm getting better and every day I'm getting better. So a little bit at a time and eventually I'll get there."

A "little bit at a time" spells no rush for an ending to Williams' decorated tenure of dominating clay, grass and hardcourt surfaces.

"I definitely have goals," Williams said. "Obviously, I'm going to have to reach them and it's going to take a while, but I'm going to get there a little bit at a time. A day at a time."

Williams -- a minority owner of the Miami Dolphins -- is also part owner of the tournament. Ross joked Monday that she could become an owner and winner of the same tournament, simultaneously.

The Miami Open was founded in 1985. Williams dreamt of playing in it as a youngster, watching the likes of Monica Seles and Steffi Graf dominate under the South Florida sun.

She called Ross a "visionary" when it came to moving the tournament, after first having doubts about the relocation. Williams' eight Miami Open victories are more than any other player.

Blake -- the new Miami Open tournament director -- said that if you bet against his longtime friend winning again, you are "doing so at your own peril."

"I learned long ago not to even think about doing that because of just how competitive she is and how quick her comeback already has gone," Blake said. "From Fed Cup, to last week, to now.

"I think you are going to see leaps and bounds progress by her and it's exciting to see her comeback, another kinda chapter in her journey."

Williams lost in an exhibition match to Jelena Ostapenko in December, her first match since giving birth. She played in a doubles match with sister Venus Williams in February at the Fed Cup.

Most recently, Venus beat Serena in straight sets 6-3, 6-2 in the round of 32 on March 12 at the BNP Paribas Open. That bout came after Serena beat Zarina Diyas and Kiki Bertens in her previous matches at Indian Wells.

Blake -- who left the sport in 2013 -- marvels at the longevity of Williams and 2017 Miami Open champ Roger Federer. Federer, 36, is the second-oldest male player to ever win a Grand Slam. He could soon catch Ken Rosewall, who won the Australian Open at age 37. Serena Williams became the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era when she won in Melbourne at 35.

While Blake says he can't relate to being a mother, he respects what his friend is doing on her comeback tour. He says Federer and Williams have one thing in common when it comes to why they persist: their love for tennis.

"Every time she steps on the court, it's historic," Blake said. "What she is doing, what she has done for the sport. We are absolutely in a golden era, with two of the greatest players of all time with Serena and Roger playing late into their 30s. Playing longer than most people would have ever expected them to. Really [longer] than they ever need to.

"Both of their legacies are cemented. They don't need to do anything more to prove themselves. They are both still doing it because they love the game. Serena is bar-none the fiercest competitor I've ever known.

"She's a good friend, so I've known her closely for a while and without any restriction on gender...historical, anyone I've ever known. She's the most competitive person. So for her to still be out here. She knows she's doing it because she wants to win. That's inspiring to me. I think a lot of young players, especially young women, look up to her and see someone that is empowered. Someone that is strong and someone that is doing what she wants to do, not what she needs to do."

Williams said the support she has gotten after sharing the story of her life-threatening delivery of Olympia has been overwhelming. She also said she hasn't played enough matches yet to know if being a mother has changed her on-court experience.

"I'm just trying to be nicer to myself. But I'm so intense," she said. "I have such high expectations all the time."

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