When Serena Williams describes the essence of her game, she does not choose a specific shot. She doesn’t talk about her flexibility or movement, nor does she mention her power.
“My game is my mental toughness,” she says succinctly. “Just not only to be able to play, to win, but to be able to come back when I’m down. Both on the court and after tough losses, just to continue to come back and continue to fight, it’s something that takes a lot of tenacity.”
Her last-four meeting today against unseeded Elena Vesnina will be Serena’s eighth consecutive grand slam semi-final appearance – a stretch that is made all the more remarkable by the fact that she is turning 35 and already has 21 majors trophies. How could she possibly still crave for more?
“I think it’s great. You know, like I said, it just shows another mental toughness of mine, just being able to come through and consistently get to this stage of the tournament. I think it’s something that is really noteworthy,” she explained.
Serena finds herself at a grand slam semi-final, together with sister Venus, for the 11th time in their careers, but this is the first occasion this has happened since 2009. The accomplishments of the Williams family have been told, retold, and documented in every shape and form but the full picture will never be fully captured until they both retire.
“I’m surprised of the longevity of it. That definitely took me by surprise,” says Serena of her and Venus’ life story. “But also when you’re younger and you have a dream and you say it and you believe it, that’s one thing. But for it to really happen and to come true, it’s just a completely different emotion.”
Serena, targeting a seventh Wimbledon trophy, and an Open Era record-equalling grand slam title, leads Vesnina 4-0 head-to-head but they haven’t faced off, in singles, since 2013.
“She has a really good grass court game, I think,” said Serena. “She has a really good serve. I notice that she always works on things and she always improves her game.
“She’s also very aggressive. She comes to the net. I know her game really, really well. It’s good to play someone’s game that you know. I think, yeah, I’ll be ready for it.”
Venus Williams will on Thursday play in her first grand slam semi-final in six years and at 36, the American has left the tennis world in awe of her longevity and perseverance.
Only two women have made that stage at a major after their 36th birthday – Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King – and when Venus takes on the fourth-seed Angelique Kerber, she knows she’ll be joining tennis royalty in the history books.
Continuing to battle with the auto-immune disease Sjogren’s Syndrome, Venus has defied the odds and insists she never considered retiring from the sport.
“Retiring is the easy way out. I don’t have time for easy. Tennis is just hard,” said a smiling Venus, who has won Wimbledon five times and owns seven slam singles titles overall.
The last time she had made the semi-finals at a grand slam was at the 2010 US Open. Since then, she has lost in the first week at a major 14 times, yet never doubted her ability to bounce back.
“She said one of the best quotes the other day ‘no one backs you to win your first, no one backs you to win your last, you’ve got to believe in yourself’ and I absolutely love that quote so much, one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard from her because it is so true,” says ex-world No1 Lindsay Davenport, who lost to Venus in the 2005 Wimbledon final.
“People have questions about players, are they mentally strong enough, physically to last through a tournament? And she’s just always believed in herself and it’s a great message to, I think, everybody. It’s been amazing to watch her play here…
“She has been steadfast that she doesn’t want to quit, she’s not going anywhere and basically ‘no one is going to push me out of the sport but myself when I feel it’s time’. So to persevere through a lot of early losses in slams the last few years, this is a player that won seven, she was getting consistently to quarters, semis and finals, it is tough to accept that. But she still believed it.”
Already up to No7 in the world by virtue of reaching the semi-finals, a win could see Venus hit No6 in the rankings – which would be her highest position since February 2011.
She is undefeated in Wimbledon semi-finals, winning all previous eight she has reached, and could potentially face-off with her sister Serena in the final, should they both post victories.
Someone told Venus that if this were a Hollywood movie, she would be the woman standing with the trophy on Saturday.
“Like that movie ‘Wimbledon’. Real life is what Hollywood is based off of. So, hey, let’s do it,” she said confidently.
Her opponent, Kerber, is the reigning Australian Open champion and is the only one of the four semi-finalists yet to drop a set this fortnight.
The German owns the most main draw wins this season, tied with Dominika Cibulkova with 33 victories, and could overtake Serena as No1 in the world if the American fails to reach the final and Kerber takes the Wimbledon title.
Kerber leads Venus 3-2 head-to-head but they haven’t played since 2014.
The 28-year-old from Bremen has been on an aggressive streak at the All England Club these past 10 days, hitting a combined 89 winners through her first five matches, with +25 winner-unforced error differential.
“She looks confident again,” said Davenport of Kerber.
“If she gets past those first few rounds it seems like something always clicks in her game and she’s more and more dangerous.
“The serve though, that just gives me a little bit of question marks on this surface when she plays players that can really put pressure on the return. She’s going to have to be a little bit more creative and a little bit more willing to take risks on her serve.
“I think she hit like 85 per cent of second serves to the backhand, that number has to change, you can’t be predictable against the best if you want to win majors. So we’ll see.”
Kerber, who is 4-1 against top-10 opposition in 2016, is looking forward to playing Venus, whom she beat at the All England Club during the London 2012 Olympics.
“I played against her a lot of tough matches. She’s always dangerous on grass, especially here in Wimbledon. She has a lot of confidence right now. She played great matches,” said Kerber.
“So, you know, I’m looking forward to play against her. It’s the next challenge here. It’s the semis. I will just try to playing like the last matches, being aggressive, my game.”
Elena Vesnina joked that her surprise run to her first grand slam singles semi-final is due to #TheLendlEffect, a hashtag her mixed doubles partner Bruno Soares coined a few weeks ago on Twitter.
Ivan Lendl reunited with Andy Murray before the Queen’s tournament last month which led to the Scot winning a record fifth title there.
Soares, who plays doubles with Andy’s brother, Jamie, later took to Twitter, starting this exchange with Vesnina.
It is three weeks later and Vesnina finds herself in the Wimbledon semi-finals and ready to take on Serena Williams. She laughed when I reminded her of #TheLendlEffect.
“You see, I have it now. I need to speak about that with Bruno. That’s true actually. Good that you mentioned that. That’s definitely the Lendl effect,” she chuckled.
Explaining The Lendl Effect to the rest of the room, the Russian added: “That was Bruno Soares, my mixed doubles partner, he tweeted three weeks ago at the Queen’s tournament… there is a hashtag – Lendl effect – because he’s playing with Jamie Murray, who is brother of Andy Murray, who won Queen’s. They won, as well. They were winning some tournaments. There’s definitely a Lendl effect.
“I tweet them back ‘I’m your partner in mixed doubles, I’m your partner as well’. He said ‘you will see, you will get it’.
“I am in semi-final of Wimbledon. There is something in it.”
I passed Lendl in the hallway the other day, surely The Lendl Effect will reach me somehow, right?