Between them, they have won 38 major championships in their respective sports, and as Serena Williams took the court to face the No. 2 player in the world in the U.S. Open on Wednesday, Tiger Woods took a seat, joining her family in the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“He’s one of the reasons I’m here,” Williams told reporters after beating Anett Kontaveit in three sets, “one of the main reasons I’m still playing.”
Woods was an enthusiastic supporter, too, delivering a vintage Tiger fist pump when Williams’s victory was complete and later tweeting, “It was a privilege to watch greatness.” But he was no ordinary fan.
With both of their legendary athletic careers winding down, Woods, 46, and Williams, 40, forged a relationship in which she turned to him as a mentor, she revealed recently in Vogue.
Williams had played just four matches in the past 14 months, winning only once. Her last match before the U.S. Open was a lopsided, error-strewn loss to 19-year-old Emma Raducanu on Aug. 16 that lasted just 65 minutes. Her trip to Wimbledon this summer ended with a first-round loss and an injury when she slipped on wet grass.
She was beginning to mentally prepare for what she calls her evolution to what’s next — business ventures and perhaps adding to a family that includes 5-year-old daughter Olympia — but wasn’t quite ready to leave the sport in which she turned pro as a 14-year-old. Enter Woods.
“I was talking to Tiger Woods, who’s a friend, and I told him I needed his advice on my tennis career. I said, ‘I don’t know what to do: I think I’m over it, but maybe I’m not over [tennis],’” Williams told Rob Haskell in Vogue. “He’s Tiger, and he was adamant that I be a beast the same way he is!
“He said, ‘Serena, what if you just gave it two weeks? You don’t have to commit to anything. You just go out on the court every day for two weeks and give it your all and see what happens.’ I said, ‘All right, I think I can do that.’ ”
Williams said she waited a month and then returned to the court, where it “felt magical to pick up a racket again.”
At that point, she said she “was good. I was really good. I went back and forth about whether to play Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open after that. As I’ve said, this whole evolution thing has not been easy for me.”
For now, her evolution is on hold. Next up at the U.S. Open is doubles Thursday night with her sister Venus. On Friday, she’ll play unseeded Ajla Tomljanovic and knows that, with the No. 2 player out of the way, the draw favors her for a while as she attempts to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
“I know there’s a fan fantasy that I might have tied Margaret that day in London [at Wimbledon], then maybe beat her record in New York, and then at the trophy ceremony say, ‘See ya!’” Williams told Vogue. “ … But I’m not looking for some ceremonial, final on-court moment. I’m terrible at goodbyes, the world’s worst. But please know that I am more grateful for you than I can ever express in words. You have carried me to so many wins and so many trophies. I’m going to miss that version of me, that girl who played tennis. And I’m going to miss you.”