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New decade begins with Serena still chasing Court

(Reuters) - As the calendar flipped to 2020, Serena Williams was once again being feted, this time as sportswoman of the decade in the United States.

Tennis - Australian Open Previews - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - January 16, 2020 Serena Williams of the U.S. during a practice session REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

She was an obvious choice, having started 2010 with a blast by winning the Australian Open for a fifth time before going on to pile up 11 more grand slam singles titles before the decade was done.

Yet that decade did not end with a bang for the great Williams but, rather, a slow fade. She did not coast into the 2020s so much as trudge there through a barren patch of nearly three years.

With motherhood having given her fresh perspective and priorities in her late thirties, she had not won a singles title of any description since 2017, while her quest to match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slams had stalled on 23.

So the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of a new decade, had looked ready to usher in a new era for women’s tennis until the 38-year-old American turned back the clock with a win on Sunday by triumphing at the ASB Classic in New Zealand.

Normally, a victory by the greatest women’s player of her generation, and perhaps all-time, at one of the WTA Tour’s lesser stops against a middling field might not have been expected to generate too much excitement.

But this result even caught the attention of the U.S. president Donald Trump, who offered his congratulations on Twitter for “another big win”.

“It’s pretty satisfying just to get a win in the final,” Williams told reporters following her 6-3 6-4 win over compatriot Jessica Pegula in the Auckland final. “That was really important for me - and I just want to build on it.

“It’s just a step towards the next goal.”

That goal is a singular one that has grown into a quest -- to match and surpass Court’s record.

Australia has provided a happy hunting ground for Williams with seven of her 23 major titles coming at Melbourne Park, including her last in 2017 when she beat sister Venus in the final and later announced she was pregnant.

But Grand Slam success has proven elusive since the birth of daughter Alexis Olympia.

Four times -- twice at Wimbledon (2018, 2019) and U.S. Open (2018, 2019) -- Williams has come agonizingly close to that 24th Slam, only to fall at the final hurdle.

“I’m not necessarily chasing a record,” said Williams, following her straight-set loss to Canadian Bianca Andreescu in last year’s U.S. Open final. “I’m just trying to win Grand Slams.”

Since having a child and returning to the WTA Tour Williams’s focus has been split between raising a family and work.

Striking that balance between private life and career has been a challenge.

Williams has tried a limited schedule but her play lacked sharpness. She then played more but by the time she reached the end of a two-week Grand Slam grind had run out of gas and ideas.

In four Grand Slam finals since that 2017 Australian Open win, she has failed to take even a single set, exposing serious cracks in Williams’s aura of invincibility.

Her presence is not as intimidating, her power not as threatening. She no longer relies on speed and athleticism to get to balls but on experience and guile.

One thing that has remained intact, however, is the old Williams self-belief. As she says herself: “You have to be your biggest cheerleader.”

Editing by Ian Chadband

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