As the calendar flipped to 2020, Serena Williams was once again being feted, this time as sportswoman of the decade in the United States.
She was an obvious choice, having started 2010 with a blast by winning the Australian Open for a fifth time before going on to pile up 11 more grand slam singles titles before the decade was done.
Yet that decade did not end with a bang for the great Williams but, rather, a slow fade. She did not coast into the 2020s so much as trudge there through a barren patch of nearly three years.
With motherhood having given her fresh perspective and priorities in her late thirties, she had not won a singles title of any description since 2017, while her quest to match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slams had stalled on 23.
So the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of a new decade, had looked ready to usher in a new era for women’s tennis until the 38-year-old American turned back the clock with a win on Sunday by triumphing at the ASB Classic in New Zealand.
Normally, a victory by the greatest women’s player of her generation, and perhaps all-time, at one of the WTA Tour’s lesser stops against a middling field might not have been expected to generate too much excitement.
But this result even caught the attention of the U.S. President Donald Trump, who offered his congratulations on Twitter for “another big win”.
“It’s pretty satisfying just to get a win in the final,” Williams told reporters following her 6-3 6-4 win over compatriot Jessica Pegula in the Auckland final. “That was really important for me – and I just want to build on it. It’s just a step towards the next goal.”
That goal is a singular one that has grown into a quest — to match and surpass Court’s record. Australia has provided a happy hunting ground for Williams with seven of her 23 major titles coming at Melbourne Park, including her last in 2017 when she beat sister Venus in the final and later announced she was pregnant.
But Grand Slam success has proven elusive since the birth of daughter Alexis Olympia. Four times — twice at Wimbledon (2018, 2019) and U.S. Open (2018, 2019) — Williams has come agonisingly close to that 24th Slam, only to fall at the final hurdle.
“I’m not necessarily chasing a record,” said Williams, following her straight-set loss to Canadian Bianca Andreescu in last year’s U.S. Open final. “I’m just trying to win Grand Slams.”
Since having a child and returning to the WTA Tour Williams’s focus has been split between raising a family and work. Striking that balance between private life and career has been a challenge.
Williams has tried a limited schedule but her play lacked sharpness. She then played more but by the time she reached the end of a two-week Grand Slam grind had run out of gas and ideas.
In four Grand Slam finals since that 2017 Australian Open win, she has failed to take even a single set, exposing serious cracks in Williams’s aura of invincibility.
Her presence is not as intimidating, her power not as threatening. She no longer relies on speed and athleticism to get to balls but on experience and guile.
One thing that has remained intact, however, is the old Williams self-belief. As she says herself: “You have to be your biggest cheerleader.”
With Cahill back in her corner, Halep chases Melbourne glory
Simona Halep hopes having Darren Cahill back in her corner at the Australian Open will help her land a third Grand Slam title but if the Melbourne Park trophy eludes her once again it will not be down to a lack of fitness or preparation.
Halep reached the Melbourne title match in 2018 but lost a three-set thriller to Caroline Wozniacki. It was the Romanian’s third defeat in three Grand Slam finals.
She would not have long to wait for her breakthrough win, however, as Cahill guided her to victory at the very next Slam, Halep coming from a set and a break down to beat Sloane Stephens in the French Open final.
Australian Cahill split from the then world No. 1 later in 2018 to spend more time with his family and while Halep won Wimbledon last year her performances were inconsistent and she slipped down the rankings.
Halep said in September she was reuniting with the Australian, who had also helped her twice finish number one in the WTA year-end rankings.
“As everyone knows, Darren was not very away from my career this year,” Halep said. “He was in the background, helping me a lot — during Wimbledon the most. He is part of that success, for sure.”
Halep, an aggressive baseliner who also has excellent court coverage, has spoken of her desire to win a medal at the Olympic Games this year but she is also determined to take a step closer to completing the career Grand Slam.
“I hope to be as well prepared as possible at Melbourne,” she was quoted as saying by www.tennisworldusa.org.
“I feel very well physically, I don’t have any problems, I trained well. My legs feel powerful, my whole body does.”
Halep could also see a surge in support at Melbourne Park after she devised a unique way to support relief and recovery efforts amid Australia’s bushfire catastrophe.
The 28-year-old plans to donate $200 every time she yells at Cahill during the Australian Open. “This way I will raise a lot more money,” she said on Twitter.
Wozniacki to head into retirement, loved but legacy unsure
Caroline Wozniacki will, fittingly, take her final bow over the next fortnight at Melbourne Park, the scene of her only Grand Slam victory in a career that earned her praise for her tenacity and approachable character but also saw her acquire detractors.
The 29-year-old said last month that the Australian Open would be her final tournament, ending a 14-year professional career that delivered 30 singles titles, 71 weeks as the world number one and elevated Danish tennis to the global stage.
Wozniacki only revealed in late 2018 that she had been battling with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful autoimmune disease that affects the joints and produces fatigue, but made it clear last month that her illness had nothing to do with her decision.
Instead, she was keen to move on with her life after getting married to former basketball player David Lee, a two-time NBA All-Star, last June.
“In recent months, I’ve realized that there is a lot more in life that I’d like to accomplish off the court,” Wozniacki wrote on Instagram in making the announcement.
Injuries to her knees, ankles, back, calf and shoulder in recent years, however, may have made the decision to hang up her racket a little easier.
She also made just one final last year and dropped to 38th in the world, her lowest year-end ranking since 2007.
Coached by her father Piotr from age seven, she played her first WTA event just weeks after her 15th birthday, earning the first $1,260 of her $35.2 million in prize money in a first-round loss to Switzerland’s Patty Schnyder in Cincinnati.
After bouncing between the WTA and lower-level tours, she came of age in 2008 when she won her first senior titles and finished the year ranked 12th.
She made her first Grand Slam final in 2009, losing to Belgium’s Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open before she became the first Dane to reach the number one ranking in 2010.
That rise caused some controversy, with Wozniacki — like Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic before her — reaching the pinnacle of the rankings without having won a Grand Slam singles.
The ranking system itself was pilloried and she was criticised for playing too many tournaments that affected her play at Grand Slams, while her tenure also coincided with serious injuries to all-time great Serena Williams. Wozniacki politely batted the criticism away, although her father was more pointed.
“Caroline is in tennis history,” Piotr Wozniacki told the New York Times in 2012. “It takes only one Grand Slam, and Caroline is a legend.”
Her 2018 victory on a sweltering Rod Laver Arena over Romania’s Simona Halep, another player to reach the top ranking before winning her first Grand Slam, should help in debates over her legacy.
It at least stopped the question she suspected she had been asked “100,000 times”. “It’s really nice not to have to answer the ‘no Grand Slam’ question ever again,” she told reporters. In three weeks, she will not need to answer any more tennis questions. At all.
Tennis-Barty to soak up pressure of hopeful Australia
Bringing the world number one ranking and Grand Slam success to the Australian Open, home hero Ash Barty will carry a heavy burden of expectation to deliver the goods at Melbourne Park.
The stocky 23-year-old’s rollicking 2019 season has raised hopes she will end the country’s 42-year wait for a homebred winner at a Grand Slam where local entrants have rarely graced the second week over the past two decades.
Living up to a pantheon of Australian champions that includes the likes of Rod Laver and Margaret Court has proved beyond the nation’s leading players in the modern era.
Lleyton Hewitt was stopped in 2005 final by an inspired Marat Safin and fellow former world number one Pat Rafter could go no further than the semi-finals.
Wimbledon winner Pat Cash was denied in back-to-back finals in the 1980s by the mighty Swedish duo of Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander.
Sam Stosur, the country’s most recent Grand Slam title winner before Barty, has never made it past the fourth round, the one-time U.S. Open champion’s muscular shoulders seizing up with stage-fright on the showcourts.
Barty made the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park last year, so she has already had a taste of the prime-time appearances, heaving crowds and hungry media scrums sure to follow her in Australia.
But at last year’s tournament, she was still an unproven, if popular, talent with a modest 15th seeding and made it through to the last eight of a slam for the first time at Melbourne Park.
The attention will be stronger this time round, having made her major breakthrough at the French Open and become her country’s first female world number one since Evonne Goolagong-Cawley.
Barty had a dose of the home-town pressure at the Fed Cup final in Perth in November, when the weight of carrying the Australian team finally took its toll against France.
Riding a 15-rubber winning streak in the tournament, she was overhauled by underdog Kristina Mladenovic in the reverse singles then lost the decisive doubles with Stosur to finish the season with a tinge of regret.
Mladenovic’s win will have encouraged the Australian’s rivals, particularly those boasting the Frenchwoman’s firepower and heart. Although blessed with an outstanding all-court game, Barty can be vulnerable to sustained pressure from big hitters who can take away her time and space to control points with craft.
Barring Caroline Wozniacki’s counter-punching triumph at the 2018 Australian Open, baseline pounders have ruled over Melbourne Park in recent years.
Barty will need to produce something special to buck that trend and become Australia’s first multiple Grand Slam singles winner since Hewitt, who triumphed at Wimbledon (2002) and the U.S. Open (2001).
Win or lose, the hugely popular Queenslander can be relied upon to exit with head held high and savour her tournament over a couple of cold beers.
“The challenge for me is to come out here and enjoy it, soak up the crowd, soak up the fact that as Australians we get to spend the first month in Australia,” she said earlier this month.”It’s pretty special.”
Rejuvenated Osaka looking to retain Melbourne title
Japan’s Naomi Osaka heads to Melbourne looking to defend her Australian Open title following a tumultuous 2019 which saw her reach world number one, change coach twice and become the second-highest-paid female athlete on the planet.
Osaka’s victory over Petra Kvitova in Melbourne last year earned her a second consecutive Grand Slam title following her success at the 2018 U.S. Open but she quickly found herself struggling to cope with the pressure of being world No. 1.
Osaka split with coach Sascha Bajin shortly after her win over Kvitova and in August said she, “hadn’t had fun playing tennis” since Melbourne.
That same month business magazine Forbes placed her second to only rival Serena Williams in the list of highest paid female athletes over the previous year.
Following disappointing performances at the remaining Grand Slams, Osaka regained some form towards the end of last season, picking up titles at the Pan Pacific Open and China Open.
In December she moved onto her third coach of the year – Belgian Wim Fissette – and comes into the first Grand Slam of 2020 ranked third in the world and with a new outlook on life.
“I just feel like I’m experiencing so many things in my life and … and I’m trying to take it all into perspective that these are things that I’ve never thought I was going to be able to do,” Osaka said before this month’s Brisbane International.
After withdrawing from last year’s WTA Finals with a shoulder injury, Osaka was able to take an extended holiday, going to the Turks and
Caicos Islands with her sister Mari. While rest and relaxation would have been her top priority in the Caribbean, the trip saw her suffer a “near-death experience” while paddleboarding with her sister.
After relinquishing her U.S. citizenship when she turned 22 last October – Japan does not permit dual citizenship for adults – Osaka confirmed she would be representing the hosts at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
With two Grand Slam titles to her name, Osaka will hope to add Olympic gold to her trophy cabinet this year and perhaps start to think about joining Serena Williams and Steffi Graf as the only female players to win all four majors and the Olympics.
Before that, however, she must use the Australian Open to prove the difficulties of last season are all behind her and show that she means business in 2020.