By: Bryce Christian
It wouldn’t be intuitive that a professional athlete would be in the prime of his or her career in their thirties, especially for tennis players. Considering most players turn pro around 16-years-old, fame and fortune has historically hit early or shortly thereafter. The new trend in tennis is seeing players age to perfection—just like a fine wine.
Serena Williams is no stranger to the winner’s circle. Like most of her predecessors, she too claimed glory in her early playing days in the early 2000’s. After several injuries, the death of a sister, and a life-threatening health complication, Williams has returned to heights higher than her former days atop the tennis world—but at age 32!
The 2002-03 tennis season was Williams golden era. At the young age of 21, Serena consecutively won all four of tennis’ biggest events, the Grand Slams, a feat now dubbed the “Serena Slam.” She had boasted a 92 and 93 win percentage for each year respectively and amassed 12 titles. One of those titles came at the 2002 French Open, tennis’ top prize on a clay court.
Clay courts have historically proven problematic for American tennis players. Raised and trained on hard courts, U.S. players struggle with the movement and strategy inherent to clay courts, a difference that drastically sets it apart from its fast-paced siblings grass and hard court. These challenges were no stranger to Williams.
Despite her French Open crown, clay wins were hard to come by for Williams. She marked a career-high 17 clay court victories in that 2002 season, but never managed to replicate those numbers until she again notched 17 wins in 2012, just before making a dramatic leap to 28 clay wins last season.
So why do clay court titles mean anything?
Before Williams’ 2013 season, a year that saw her win 94% of matches, her highest win percentage had been 2003’s 93%. In that year, Williams only managed to win 12 clay court matches. In the two most recent seasons, she has quadrupled that number. After a shocking first-round loss at the 2012 French Open (Williams’ first ever first-round loss at a major), Serena stumbled into the Patrick Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Paris, looking for answers.
The partnership blossomed like the wildest of wildflowers. In the year and a half that the two have worked together, Williams is a combined 109-5 wins/losses. Passed the daunting 30-year mark, Serena has managed to become an even better portrait of her former peaks. The success lies in the clay courts, funny enough.
One of Mourataglou’s greatest strategies was getting Serena to focus on her clay court game. To find success on the dirt, patience, consistency and spin must all be readily employed. This is counterintuitive to many Americans’ boom-boom, bang-bang mentality. But wise and eager to amend her humiliating loss in Paris, Williams fought to make herself better—a better version of her best self. And she did just that.
In 2013, Serena sought sweet revenge on the terre-batû and claimed her second French Open title (she owns at least four of each major). It was a declaration of not only a great two-week campaign, but the arrival of a Serena seemingly unconquerable. With a new restraint on her aggressive gameplay, Williams has been able to not only win nearly every match she plays, but even the clay ones too.
The 2014 season is still dripping with fresh paint but Williams has already managed to bag a title and rack up an 88% win percentage.
Age truly is nothing but a number.