WIMBLEDON, England — There was a time, when she was a much younger player, that Serena Williams got upset when she wasn’t picked as the favorite to win Wimbledon.
Today, at 36 and just 10 months removed from a difficult childbirth that was followed by grave health complications, she’s bemused by those who expected her to reach Wimbledon’s final this year, so soon after returning to competition.
“I literally didn’t expect to do this well in my fourth tournament back,” Williams said Thursday after doing just that, clinching a spot in Saturday’s final with a 6-2, 6-4 semifinal victory over Julia Goerges of Germany. “It’s not inevitable for me to be playing like this.”
On Saturday, No. 25 seed Williams will face 11th-seeded Angelique Kerber, who advanced with a 6-3, 6-3 defeat of the risk-taking Jelena Ostapenko, in a reprise of Wimbledon’s 2016 final. Although Williams won that match in straight sets to claim her seventh Wimbledon championship and the 22nd of her 23 Grand Slam titles, she noted that Kerber, who has two Grand Slam titles of her own, is a more experienced, dangerous opponent today than she was two years ago.
“I have to be ready for the match of my life,” Williams said.
Given Williams’s domination of the sport over the past two decades, it is easy to assume that she can summon greatness at the snap of her fingers. Moreover, given the times she has tumbled from the top of the world rankings following tragedy or injury, only to rise again — as she did following the 2003 death of her sister Yetunde, foot surgery in 2010 and a life-threatening pulmonary embolism in 2011 — it’s easy to assume Williams’s return to world-beating form was a certainty after maternity leave.
Hardly so. And Williams has made a point of raising the curtain on her rocky road back to make a larger point to women who feel overwhelmed by the changes in their bodies, emotions and priorities following childbirth.
“It’s about picking yourself up off the floor,” said Jill Smoller, Williams’s close friend, confidante and agent of nearly 20 years.
In a sense, Williams has been writing this narrative — rising up, overcoming, doing the impossible — since her father, Richard, took her and sister Venus to a dilapidated tennis court in Compton, Calif., put rackets in their hands and coached them, along with their mother, into champions.
For the past 18 years, Smoller has been by Serena Williams’s side for almost every step. And she views Williams’s latest achievement — reaching Wimbledon’s final for the 10th time — as “another piece to the story that’s not close to being done.”
Speaking to reporters after Thursday’s semifinal, Williams appeared relaxed and revealed more about the challenges she has faced since Alexis Olympia was born Sept. 1, including a recurrence of life-threatening blood clots after her emergency Caesarean section.
“I lost count after four surgeries because I was in so many surgeries,” she said. “. . . Because of all the blood issues I have, I was really touch-and-go for a minute.”
Extended bed rest followed. For a time afterward, she could barely walk to the mailbox.
But she declined to compare her recovery to other injuries and setbacks she has experienced, pointing to the joy of motherhood that offsets it all. “It’s by far the toughest,” she said. “But in a way, it’s by far the best.”
When she returned to competition in March, she was disappointed that she didn’t perform better. She lost in the third round at Indian Wells, and then she was ousted in the first round at Miami.
The idea was to treat each tournament like a steppingstone, but Williams wanted to take giant steps. She also wrestled with the profound pull of entirely new emotions.
“Mostly, the hardest part was mentally letting go of a lot of mommy things in order to fully be 100 percent into tennis,” Williams said.
It was a process, as was reclaiming her movement, her timing and the power in her serve — particularly after injuring a pectoral muscle midway through the French Open.
As a medical precaution, given her history of blood clots, Williams wore a body-hugging compression suit during play in Paris. To fashionistas, it was a sleek catsuit. To Williams, it served double duty as a symbolic suit of armor.
She was not in superhero form when Wimbledon got underway last week. She had resumed serving again only a few days earlier after taking a break to let her pectoral heal.
But she improved with each round. Her movement has gotten nimbler, her ball-striking more crisp. And her serve, widely regarded as the greatest in women’s tennis, again packs its daunting punch and placement.
After getting broken by Goerges in the second set Thursday, Williams slammed the door on any thought of a rally by serving out the match with successive service blasts. All told, she won the point 87 percent of the time that she landed her first serve.
“This is as well as she has played, period, in her career,” nine-time Wimbledon singles champion Martina Navratilova said, commentating for the BBC. “It looks like she was never away.”
Few can fully appreciate Williams’s comeback these past 10 months. But Pam Shriver has special insight as a 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion and mother of three who had a C-section and knows firsthand the setback it poses for any athlete whose sport taxes the abdominal muscles.
“I had age [in common with Williams] and a C-section, and I certainly wasn’t coming back to play tennis,” said Shriver, who’s at Wimbledon as an ESPN analyst. “What is cut in a C-section are important parts of your core [muscles]. It’s surgery — major abdominal surgery — and she had all these other complications.
“Whatever happens Saturday, it’s one of the more impressive things that she has done. And that’s understating it.”