Serena Williams has regained her winning ways, ending a 3-year title drought at the ASB Classic in Auckland on Sunday, and then donating her tournament prize money to the Australian bushfires relief fund.
I've been playing in Australia for over 20 years and it's been really hard for me to watch all the news and everything that has been happening with all the fires. Over a billion animals and people that have lost their homes. I decided at the beginning of the tournament, in every match I played I'd donate a dress, and I'd also donate all my prize money for a great cause. Serena Williams
The 38-year old, who has not picked up a trophy since winning the Australian Open in 2017, beat unsung compatriot Jessica Pegula, 6-3 6-4, in the final, raising expectations that she can now equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles in Melbourne in a week’s time.
The 23-time Grand Slam winner has played in 4 major finals and the Rogers Cup in 2019 after her return from giving birth, but come up short.
In Auckland, however, after an hour and 35 minutes, she finally won her first title as a mother, her 73rd overall stretching across four decades. Remarkably, she won her first in 1999.
Her celebrations, however, were tempered by donating her US$43,000 winners cheque to help the victims of the Australian bushfires.
She also donated her match-worn dresses to be auctioned to help raise money, and later added her doubles winnings.
Since October, thousands of Australians have faced repeat evacuations as huge and unpredictable fires scorched more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres), an area roughly the size of South Korea.
“I’ve been playing in Australia for over 20 years and it’s been really hard for me to watch all the news and everything that has been happening with all the fires,” she said.
“Over a billion animals and people that have lost their homes. So much has happened, so I decided at the beginning of the tournament, in every match I played I’d donate a dress, and I’d also donate all my prize money for a great cause.”
The top seed slipped 1-3 behind in the first set against the unseeded Pegula, a fellow American but, once she found her range, there was never any doubt about the final result, which Williams greeted by raising her arms in triumph, while her husband Alexis Ohanian and two-year-old daughter Olympia looked on.
“I’ve been waiting two years for this moment,” Williams said, who returned to the tour in March 2018.
“It feels good. It’s been a long time. You can see the relief on my face.”
She then added that she could feel her game sharpening up as she prepares to head to Melbourne.
“It definitely feels good, it feels like I was definitely improving as the week went on, and obviously I needed to.”
Pegula, who has only one title to her credit, had stunned former World No 1 Caroline Wozniacki, a close friend of Serena, in a 3-set semi-final, winning every game in the deciding set.
The 25-year-old continued in the same fearless vein at the start of the final, seemingly untroubled by her heavily bandaged left thigh as she chased down everything Williams delivered, and even broke Serena’s first serve.
Pegula held her own and appeared set to break again when Williams, by this stage yelling with every point she won, fought back from 15-40 to hold her second delivery game on the 5th deuce.
Williams eventually achieved a break of her own to level at 3-3, finding the power and precision that had eluded her until then.
With her confidence restored, Williams held to love in the next game, broke Pegula again and then served to clinch the first set.
The 25-year old, who is ranked No 82, was down 0-40 at the start of the second before rallying to hold serve, but the strain of facing the player who has dominated women’s tennis for two decades was showing.
Williams broke on Pegula’s next service game and stayed out in front until the end of the set to take the title and end a sequence of 5 defeats in finals since her 2017 win in Melbourne.
“It feels good, it has been a long time,” the former World No 1 said. “I played an incredible opponent in Jessica and, honestly, it was a great match.
“I was definitely improving as the week went on and I needed to because I had some tough matches. I played every day and I’m playing still, I’ve got another match.
“I feel fortunate and blessed to be out here and to be healthy and to play. I have been playing for so long and been through so much and I’m happy to be doing something I love.”
Williams fell short of the achieving the double, though, when she and Wozniacki lost their doubles final, going down 6-4 6-4 to the all American duo of Asia Muhammad & Taylor Townsend.
They battled hard, but Williams couldn’t quite get the win after teaming up as a special way of saying farewell to her good friend Wozniacki, who will retire after the Australian Open.
They had hoped to give the Dane a trophy in Auckland after trying for so many years but they came up against a pair who played outstanding doubles together.
In the packed-out stadium the crowd stay riveted, watching the two superstars playing together for the first and only time in their respective careers.
There was little between the two teams, although Wozniacki’s lack of doubles knowledge was sometimes exposed.
Muhammad & Townsend got 2 breaks of serve in the first set, to 1 from Williams & Wozniacki, while there was just a solitary break in the second.
It is the first doubles title won by the unseeded pairing of Muhammad & Taylor.
Muhammad extended her unbeaten record in WTA doubles finals to 5-0, while doling out just the second doubles final defeat of Serena’s career following Carlsbad 1999, where Lindsay Davenport & Corina Morariu defeated her and elder sister Venus, 6-4 6-1.
For Townsend, who lost both of her previous WTA doubles finals, including last year’s Auckland final alongside Paige Mary Hourigan to Eugenie Bouchard & Sofia Kenin, it is a maiden WTA trophy of any kind.
Wozniacki now bows out at the ASB Classic having never won a trophy in Auckland, but that shouldn’t take anything away from everything she has done for the tournament over the years and, at the trophy ceremony, there was a special presentation made to the great Dane.
For Williams, the New Zealand win means, for the first time, the 23-time major winner will arrive at Melbourne Park with a title already in the bag for the year.
And, for the first time, included in the audience to watch her lift a trophy was her two-year old daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.
“I’m a little biased but she’s so cute,” Williams smiled.