LONDON (Reuters) - A “crazy” journey that began with Serena Williams taking baby steps back into top-flight tennis following a 13-month maternity break has come almost full circle at Wimbledon as the American stands just one win away from what would be a remarkable triumph.
Williams is not one for doing things quietly during a career that has earned her 23 Grand Slam titles, four Olympic gold medals and more than $85 million dollars in prize money.
But should she beat Angelique Kerber to claim an eighth Wimbledon title on Saturday and draw level with Margaret Court’s record Grand Slam haul of 24, the commotion she will create will reverberate far beyond the sporting world - as she will have done it as a 36-year-old mother.
In the build-up to Thursday’s semi-final against Julia Goerges, there had been some rumblings that Williams had yet to be tested as she had been fortunate not to run into any top 50 player since none of the top 10 seeds made it into the last eight.
American great Billie Jean King had also voiced the main concern that remained about Williams.
“Emotionally and mentally no one can beat Serena but will she hold up physically after having a baby?” the six-times Wimbledon champion said moments before taking her seat in Centre Court’s Royal Box.
The 70-minute 6-2 6-4 destruction, during which Williams was made to run up and down the baseline and also chased after lobs as Goerges desperately tried to stay alive, left both King and nine-times champion Martina Navratilova open mouthed.
“This is as well as she has played in her career. She was solid in every facet of the game. When Gorges stepped it up and broke, she comes right back breaking to love,” gushed Navratilova.
“This a champion at her best, she moves so well. Everything is there and then some. It’s almost like she’s not feeling the pressure as much as life has taken a different turn. She can relax and is playing amazing tennis.
“It looks like she was never away.”
That was certainly the impression Goerges got because even though she hit more winners than Williams on Thursday, she was simply powerless to stop the world number 181 from becoming the first mother since 1980 champion Evonne Goolagong to reach the Wimbledon final.
“It’s crazy. I don’t even know how to feel because I literally didn’t think I’d do this well in my fourth tournament back in 16 months,” said the American, who won the 2017 Australian Open while in the early stages of her pregnancy.
“This is not inevitable for me, I had a really tough delivery and multiple surgeries and almost didn’t make it to be honest. I couldn’t even walk to my mailbox, so it’s definitely not normal for me to be in a Wimbledon final.
“I’m enjoying every moment.”
That was clear for anyone lucky enough to occupy one of the 15,000 seats on Centre Court.
All those questions about her mobility and fitness levels and whether she can beat top-15 opposition were answered swiftly and brutally.
Goerges had come into her first Grand Slam semi-final having belted more winners (199), more aces (44) and more unreturned serves (113) than anyone else in the women’s draw but those statistics counted for little when she came up against a red-hot Williams.
Back in a Grand Slam final just 10 months after giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia, a beaming Williams said: “When I don’t have anything to lose, I can just play so free and that’s what I’m doing.”
Safely through to her 10th Wimbledon final, and 30th in majors, Williams was back giving the crowd a one-arm raised victory twirl after her opponent swiped a lob behind the baseline.
At 181st in the world, Williams is the lowest ranked player to reach the women’s final but that number will fool no one, and especially not Kerber who was runner-up to the American in the 2016 final.
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Clare Lovell