Legend Serena Williams adds to Toronto tennis love story

Going out on top is hugely overrated. At the very least, it’s humbugging.

As an adage, used most often by people who’ve never been at the top of anything and probably can’t understand the lure of loving something fiercely, even when maybe it doesn’t love you back as much anymore.

Serena Williams has been on top for so much of her legendary career that anything short of the apex might feel like a failure. Or be viewed that way by others. No. 1 female tennis player on the planet for 319 weeks. Yet now dropped out of the WTA rankings entirely for the first time since October 1997, and recipient of an unseeded wild-card invite at the National Bank Open in Toronto this week.

Asked what keeps her driven as a player — with so many other interests and business pursuits and various projects — the tennis goddess sounded a bit muzzy herself, although post-match press conferences aren’t particularly conducive to insight and revelations.

“I don’t know. I guess there’s just a light at the end of the tunnel.” Followed by great peals of laughter. “I guess I’m closer to the light.” More heaving guffaws.

OK. What does that light represent? “Freedom.”

Ooh … could be on the verge of a Serena-defining moment here. Except she backs away from her own remark. “I love playing. It’s like, amazing. But you know, I can’t do this forever. So it’s just like, sometimes you just want to try your best to enjoy the moments and do the best that you can.”

On this Monday afternoon, Williams, about a month shy of her 41st birthday — astonishingly enduring for an athlete, surpassed only by her 42-year-old sister Venus, also competing in the singles event at Sobeys Stadium on the York University campus — is clearly and thoroughly enjoying the moment, after dispatching her opening-round lucky-loser opponent Nuria Párrizas-Diaz 6-3, 6-4. A more hard-fought contest than the score would suggest, including an 18 1/2-minute eighth game in the second set that went to deuce nine times, Williams saving four break points before securing the hold at 4-4.

A few minutes later, in the court tunnel, somebody captures on video — and uploads to the tournament website — a lovely episode: Williams high-fiving (low-fiving) with her cute-as-a-button, almost five-year- old daughter Alexis Olympia.

“She’s never, like, sat at my match, so I was super-excited,” said the totally chuffed mom.

The youngster has made occasional cameo appearances at her mother’s matches, but never actually watched a whole thing. And Williams wasn’t expecting her on this day, either, in the company of dad Alexis Ohanian.

“I looked over and I saw her in the middle of the first set, and I was like: Oh my God, why is she here? And then I went into mom mode. Like, does she have on her sunscreen? I was like: OK Serena, should I say something? Take her upstairs to the suite? Because she’s never been to my match.

“It’s kind of cool that it happened in Toronto, but I didn’t expect it. But I was like: OK Serena, just let go and enjoy this. It was good for her to have that memory. And she’s never had it because I’ve always kept her away.”

They’ve been making other pleasant memories, the small Williams-Ohanian family. Over the weekend, they went to the Medieval Times theatre, decidedly kitschy entertainment — the threesome, wearing silly crowns, photographed and the pic flashing across social media. At an earlier time in her life, Williams might have dropped by good friend Drake’s OVO Fest. Instead she was contentedly goofballin’ with hubby and the kid instead.

Some have wondered — questioned — why Williams keeps going, because it can’t be just about equaling (or surpassing) the record of 24 Grand Slam titles, held by Margaret Court. Williams has been sitting on 23, not budging from that number, since the 2017 Australian Open (where, unbeknownst, she played and won whilst two months pregnant).

She won’t talk about the majors record anymore and no small wonder; sick of the subject. But so obviously not sick of tennis.

This WTA 1000 tour stop marks just the second competition Williams has contested this year. The other was Wimbledon — a comeback from injury and nearly yearlong rehab — where she absorbed a heartbreaking first-round loss to Harmony Tan. There just hasn’t been a lot of tennis for the GOAT in recent years, although neither she nor Venus have ever played jam-packed tour seasons. They’ve both been quite selective.

And Serena is quite selective about Toronto, where she’s won three times in a tournament that rotates with Montreal. At her last local appearance in 2019, she lost the final in a walkover to Bianca Andreescu when her back went into spasm. (A month later, she lost the US Open final to Andreescu as well.)

“I was so happy to win a match, it’s been so long,” Williams said sardonically of her victory over Spain’s Párrizas-Diaz. “I forgot what it felt like.”

The place, the voluble adoration of the crowd — the audience grew more animated as the match wore on and a clearly rusty Serena slipped more assuredly into Serena style, allowing her own emotions to surface — gave it all a kind of come-home cosiness. (Few will remember that Williams actually made her pro debut at age 14 in Canada — Quebec City, to be precise.)

“I didn’t even know if I would be back here in Toronto,” admitted Williams, who’s trying to get some match play in before Flushing Meadows in a couple of weeks. “Toronto was just there and it was perfect. And I absolutely love playing here, clearly.” Adding: “It’s no secret that I’ve had a fabulous time on court and probably even better time off court here in Toronto. It’s a great city and I love being here. I used to visit here all the time, visit my friends, great memories.”

It’s a marquee event, this often-renamed tournament, with a gilded field that includes 15 Grand Slam champions and seven former No. 1 players. Going deep will be a challenge for Williams, as she strives to recapture her tennis sweet spot.

“Mentally, I feel I’m getting there. I’m not where I normally am and I’m not where I want to be. But I think any match that I play, whether I win or lose, it helps me get there mentally. Physically, I feel much better in practice. It’s just getting that to the court. But literally, I’m the kind of person who it just takes one or two things and then it clicks. So I’m just waiting on that to click.”

Top, middle or bottom. And for as long as she wishes or deigns.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno


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