New York - Serena Williams' return to the US Open for the
first time since becoming a mother will be an emotional experience, not least
because her daughter Alexis-Olympia's first birthday is right in the middle of
Serena will have the fans firmly behind her in New York and
the 36-year-old is also the bookmakers' favourite to win a 24th Grand Slam
title and equal Australian Margaret Court's record haul after the American's
run to this year's Wimbledon final.
The number 17 seed has spoken openly about the challenges
she has faced trying to combine being a mum and a professional tennis player,
and 18-times Grand Slam winner Chris Evert says Serena must find a way to
channel her emotions on court.
"To turn the switch on and off (between being a tennis
player and a mother) is very difficult, and that's what Serena's trying to
navigate," Evert, who will be part of ESPN's coverage of the US Open in
New York, said on a conference call.
"She's never had this nurturing feeling... before. It
doesn't switch on and off. Even if it's not consciously there when she's on
court, it's in the back of her mind and it will creep in once in a while
because she's not a robot."
Serena's first tournament after Wimbledon ended in the
heaviest defeat of her career when she was thrashed 6-1 6-1 by Britain's
Johanna Konta in San Jose and the six-time US Open champion also made an early
exit in Cincinnati this month.
There is little doubt, however, about her ability to raise
her game when the occasion demands it, and an indomitable spirit makes her the
most fearsome opponent in the women's game.
"I know one thing, never underestimate Serena,"
former player Brad Gilbert said on the same call as Evert. "If she can get
through the first week... she becomes a different player."
One knock-on effect of Serena's maternity leave is that she
has lost some of her aura of invincibility, with opponents now more likely to
try and take the game to her.
"Two years ago when people took the court against her,
they were just hoping not to get beat 6-1 6-1. They were 4-0 (down) out of the
tunnel, and these top five and top 10 players would get blown out before even
walking on the court," Gilbert added.
"Every great player in the history of the game builds
up equity by crushing people, and then all of a sudden when that doesn't
happen... people (think) you know what, I have a chance today."
If Serena triumphs she will move past the record number of
US Open titles she shares with Evert, and add her name to the ranks of Margaret
Court, Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters as the only mothers to win Grand
Slams in the professional era.
"Even more than the physical part, the emotional part
is the toughest one to try to figure out for Serena to be successful... and
also to feel guilt-free that she's spending enough time with her child,"
Serena's career as a working mother has only just begun but
she is clear about her priorities off and on the court.
"For me, being around her (Alexis-Olympia) every day is
super important. I want her to have just a great upbringing, the best way I
know how," she told the Today show this week.
"I'm still trying to compete and win Grand Slams, and
most of all, do it while I have a daughter."