WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The length of time Serena Williams held her arms aloft after clinching her first WTA title in almost three years spoke volumes on Sunday as the American prepares for the latest tilt at a 24th Grand Slam title in Melbourne next week.
The celebration after her Auckland Classic victory was not as effusive as some of her previous 72 title wins, and the $43,000 winner’s cheque, which she donated to Australia bushfire relief efforts, was a drop in the ocean for someone who has won almost $93 million in career prize-money.
But the victory was highly significant in that it ended the worst title drought of her career.
Since winning her 23rd Grand Slam at the 2017 Australian Open, Williams had lost all five of her five previous finals, four at majors, a run that made the most dominant player in the modern era look fallible.
“It’s pretty satisfying to get a win in a final,” Williams told reporters. “That was really important for me.
“I want to build on it. Obviously it is a step towards the next goal in Melbourne.”
Williams’s next target is joining Margaret Court on a record 24 Grand Slams, and as much as she says it is the love of the game that keeps her going at the age of 38, surpassing the Australian is still something that drives her.
She did not play a warm-up tournament ahead of last year’s Australian Open and fell in the quarter-finals, and her appearance in Auckland was designed to get more matches under her belt before she headed to Melbourne.
Williams also played doubles with Caroline Wozniacki in Auckland, losing in the final to Asia Muhammad and Taylor Townsend, and while she appeared exhausted on Sunday it was clear the trip to New Zealand had been worthwhile.
She looked rusty early on but then produced arguably the performance of the tournament as she thrashed American teenager Amanda Anisimova 6-1 6-1 in the semi-finals.
Williams had to dig deep in the final before winning it 6-3 6-4 against fellow American Jessica Pegula, who matched the top seed from the baseline and attacked her powerful serve.
“I feel like I didn’t get any free points,” said Williams.
“It was good, because it’s good for me to win matches where I’m not getting too many free points and I have to rely on my groundstrokes.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford