She was always going to be a great champion, Serena Williams. From her early days on tour it was obvious she had great natural skill and a fierce drive to win and be more than just 'Venus' little sister". She had 7 major titles, the world's #1 ranking and everything at her fingertips. It all went awry and away quickly and is only now returning. Here's some advice she's not asking for and would surely feel like she doesn't need. I get that. I felt that way when I was winning majors too. Here it comes anyway...
So a little perspective first. Serena suffered injuries, the loss of her older sister Yetunde and an understandable lack of motivation (and an appreciable ranking drop as a result of hardly playing) in the last few years. She was interrogated in a courtroom for a week last fall by attorneys of misguided promoters suing her father for a supposed breach of contract involving the sisters. She may be a warrior but she's still a woman and she had to wonder what it was all for when her world shifted so dramatically into reality rather than the cocooned existence of top flight tennis.
I flew back on the plane today with Serena from Australia and the difference in her mindset from my first look at her in 2007 a few weeks ago to now is apparent. She has confidence (and the trophy next to her window seat, Slam #8), no doubt, from winning a tournament no one gave her a shot at after her loss in a small warm-up event down under pre-Open. She also now has a look and feel of someone who has rekindled her passion for what she was made to do...play the world's best female tennis. Two weeks ago she looked like an unsure tennis player in the Open's underground hallways, unconfident in her fitness and game. A bit insecure. That's all in the rear view mirror now. She is confident in a big way. It's seeping out of her pores. Crushing Maria Sharapova in the final will give that to you. Serena's athletic and shot making ability is unparalleled in the women's game and her mental toughness is back and likely to only get better as she predictably will go on a run and finish this year #1 in the world, assuming she remains healthy. I am quite sure she will stay focused. She had a long break the last few years to consider where she will put her energy and tennis has won for the near term. All of her outside interests appear to be on the back burner although I am a big fan of her continuing to open her mind to things outside of the cloistered tennis world so she can grow as a person, which tennis does not promote, so long as she knows where her primary focus is.
Here's my issue and I am not the first to suggest it. If Serena took her comeback one level further and added an outside coach (to compliment her mother and father's current guidance) to teach her strategy and sprinkle a few different spices to her meat and potatoes game of crush everything in sight she would play the best tennis a woman has ever played. I long to see that. Fernando Gonzalez quickly went from a crusher, a mindless basher of the ball, to a fully realized tennis player in the space of 8 months with guidance from a premier coach, Larry Stefanki. When I look at the women's game I see more and more of the old Fernando style with notable exceptions in the smaller women at the top, Justine Henin, Martina Hingis and also Amelie Mauresmo (can you believe she is now small for the women's game?). All it will take to change that is for one of the big hitters (Serena, Maria, Nicole V, Venus) to up the ante with newfound diversity in their game and it will quickly become an "anti-arms" race. Until that happens nothing will change and the hitters will win the battle against the shrinking thinkers and all tennis fans will be poorer for it.
Serena can be the one to do this. She is now writing chapter two of her story. I heard she had inquired recently about hiring Gil Reyes, Andre Agassi's long time conditioning coach and mentor. What she should really do is hire Gil and add Darren Cahill to her team as her master strategist. Darren would quickly make her better technically and, more importantly, tactically. She would be opening her eyes to the other side of the court for the first time, noticing where the weak links in her opponents games are and better exploiting them. Then the anti-arms race in women's tennis would begin. Wouldn't that be something?