Relaxing key to Grand Slam success, says Williams

One match at a time – it is the tedious mantra of every sportsman and woman, be they young or old, divas or duffers. Serena Williams, though, is a bit different.
Serena Williams balances the Venus Rosewater Dish on her head after victory in the final on Saturday. Picture: PASerena Williams balances the Venus Rosewater Dish on her head after victory in the final on Saturday. Picture: PA
Serena Williams balances the Venus Rosewater Dish on her head after victory in the final on Saturday. Picture: PA

The holder of 21 grand slam singles titles, the world No 1 and one of the greatest players the women’s game has seen, Williams is allowed to have slightly grander ambitions than the rest. For her, it is a case of one grand slam at a time.

By beating Garbine Muguruza 6-4, 6-4 on Saturday, she won her sixth Venus Rosewater Dish and completed the second “Serena Slam” – a non-calendar year grand slam – of her career. The pressure had been mounting since the beginning of the year when she won the Australian Open and added it to the US Open she had won the previous September. Two down, two to go. When she won the French Open, nobody dared breathe. And when she arrived in SW19, she would not allow anyone to mention a word about the dreaded slam. She was nervous, the historians were beside themselves and Muguruza was doing her damnedest to get in the way.

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But if that was pressure enough, Williams’s run towards the US Open will be almost unbearable. If she wins in New York, she will become only the fourth woman to complete the calendar year grand slam and the first woman to do it since Steffi Graf in 1988. And if she refused to talk about the Serena Slam at Wimbledon, she will most likely ban all talk of anything at all between now and 13 September, the day after the women’s final.

Yet on Saturday night – and for one night only – she was happy to discuss what she had just done and what she still had left to do this year. It was the briefest of windows, but it was open.

“Yeah, but it’s going on a ban,” she warned. “I’m really nice right now but sooner or later it’s going to be cut out because I can’t think about that. I have to go into New York thinking, ‘listen, I want to win the US Open. I want to defend my title’. And that’s the only reason I want to be there. That’s how I got through this. It wasn’t about winning the Serena Slam, it was about winning Wimbledon. I hadn’t won here in a while, I really wanted to win this title and that’s the same mind frame I want to go into the next grand slam.”

Last year, Williams lowered her expectations dramatically as she approached New York. The season had been poor by her standards – she had not got beyond the fourth round in any major championship – so she set herself the goal of reach the quarter-finals of the US Open. That would be a step up for 2014.

Wracked with nerves at Wimbledon, she had lost in the third round to Alize Cornet. It was a marginal improvement on her second-round loss at the French Open, but she did not know what ailed her or how to cure it. Thinking that hard work was the answer to everything, she tried working herself narrow on the practice court but that only added to the pressure. Finally, she just told herself to relax.

She went on a beach break with her pal, Caroline Wozniacki, and she kicked back. And it worked – she ploughed through the rounds at the US Open without dropping a set and then flattened Wozniacki in the final. It was not the best final on record, but it won Williams her 18th grand slam title and drew her level with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert’s tally of trophies.

“I was so nervous in that final last year – me and Caroline both,” she said. “We were both so nervous. But hopefully this year I will be a little more relaxed and I have to take that attitude of I don’t have anything to lose. So that’s kind of the mind frame I have to have.

“I definitely prefer to be relaxed. I feel like I play better when I’m relaxed. And last year, going into the Open, I didn’t get to the quarter-finals of any grand slam and so going into that tournament I was so relaxed that I thought I might repeat that and I probably won’t get too far in this tournament. So I just went in there having a low goal, quarter-finals, and then building on that goal match by match, and that’s literally how I took it.”

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When she beat Wozniacki, she said that she felt as if she never had to win another major title again. Having equalled the achievements of her fellow American legends, she was satisfied. With that weight off her shoulders, she has been unstoppable and, this year, has only lost one match.

If Williams can maintain that relaxed attitude to life, the Grand Slam is definitely a possibility because the only person who seems capable of beating Williams in her current form is Williams herself. Having completed the Serena Slam, she has eased some of the pressure and, with a packed schedule through the summer until the Open – she only has ten days free between now and then – she will have little time for introspection. The Grand Slam is, she admits, the ultimate goal, but the Serena Slam is still pretty impressive.

“I think [it is the ultimate] because of what everyone says and what everyone writes,” she said, “so obviously you can’t help but see it that way too. There’s a reason it’s been 27 years since it’s been done. I mean, it’s not the easiest thing to do.

“It would be amazing. It would be really good to have an opportunity. Even to have this opportunity to go into New York, being an American, with that amazing New York crowd. Hopefully, people will be cheering me on to, like, push me over the edge, give me that extra strength I need to go for this historic moment. That would be great. And I think, in a way, it also makes things easier for me because I feel like I have nothing to lose. I feel like I can just go in there and just do the best I can and just hope for the best.”

And as we have all learned over the years, Williams’s best is better than anyone else’s.