For Serena Williams, this year has been about baby steps — her own, and those of her 10-month-old daughter.
While young Olympia works on putting one foot in front of the other, her famous mother is regaining her footing as the player to beat in the tennis world.
“She's trying to go faster than her body will allow her to go,” Williams said. “She's moving those feet. She kicks really hard. ... I've been learning a lot from her.”
That’s clearly the case, because Williams, who endured an especially rough childbirth, has taken a significant stride back into the spotlight. She knocked off Julia Goerges, 6-2, 6-4, on Thursday to reach the Wimbledon women’s singles final for the 10th time.
Williams will play Angelique Kerber on Saturday with an eighth title in her sights. Kerber’s an opponent Williams has beaten six times in eight tries. This is a rematch of the 2016 final, which Williams won, 7-5, 6-3.
“She’s always pushing you to the limits to play your best tennis,” said Kerber, who advanced this time by beating Jelena Ostapenko. “This is the only chance to beat her.”
Williams has reached the finals? That doesn’t sound like breaking news. But considering what she went through to get this far, it’s undeniably impressive. Hers was not a routine childbirth. She had an emergency C-section in September, then a pulmonary embolism that caused intense coughing. That led to her surgical wound reopening, a swelling of clotted blood in her abdomen, and long and painful recovery.
“I lost count after, like, four surgeries,” Williams said. “It was just routine: every day I had to have a new surgery.”
Even when she was back on her feet, it was tenuous, and she was miles from getting back on the court.
“There was a time,” she said, “when I could barely walk to my mailbox.”
In light of that, it’s not terribly surprising that the longtime world No. 1 came into this tournament ranked 181 — the lowest-ranked player to reach a Wimbledon semifinal, let alone final. She has since rocketed to 51 and can climb to 19 if she wins Saturday, or 28 if she loses.
Rankings and seedings are of little predictive value on the women’s side this year. None of the tournament’s top 10 seeded players made it to the quarterfinals, and this is only the second time in the last decade that every one of those top 10 has been reduced to spectator status for the final.
Williams, who turns 37 in September, became the oldest Grand Slam singles champion when she won the Australian Open in 2017. She now has a chance to overtake that record.
Kerber is no pushover. She beat Williams in the 2016 Australian Open final, and — in addition to reaching the Wimbledon final — won the U.S. Open that year.
Williams called it “wildly impressive” that Kerber has reached the Wimbledon final twice in three years.
“I think grass is her best surface,” she said. “She plays so well here. She knows how to play on this court.”
Then again, there has been a Williams sister in the Wimbledon finals in each of the last four years — Serena in 2015, 2016 and this year, and Venus a year ago. Both have dealt with significant medical issues; Venus has Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune disease that causes muscle soreness and chronic fatigue.
Serena Williams said she is haunted by the thought she might suffer another pulmonary embolism.
“I have a pain in my leg, I automatically go to the worst-case scenario,” she said. “That is not very easy. I mean, even this week, I had a pain in my leg, and I went to the worst-case scenario: ‘Oh, my God, I have a PE in my leg.’
“It's mentally very, very difficult. I didn't know I would have such kind of traumatic thoughts, especially now that I have a daughter. I want to be around as long as I can to support her. It's interesting how that mental recovery is actually taking much longer than I ever expected.”
On the flip side, she said motherhood has dramatically changed her life for the better. Asked if this has been her most difficult year, Williams said: “I don't know if it's been the toughest because I have Olympia. For me, I only see joy out of it. In a way, it's by far the toughest, but, in a way, it's by far the best.”
Williams learned during her post-match news conference that one of the spectators who will be at Centre Court on Saturday is her friend and fellow Angeleno, the former Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex.
“Every year for a couple years she comes out to Wimbledon, has supported me,” Williams said. “Now she's supporting me in a different role. But our friendship is still exactly the same. We always have supported each other, just been there for each other through a lot. I look forward to it.”
11:55 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details and background.
This article was originally published at 8:35 a.m.