Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Highly motivated Serena Williams in a class by herself

“I just try to keep my eyes on the prize and keep going forward,” said Serena Williams, who will seek her eighth Miami Open title when she plays Carla Suarez Navarro on Saturday.
“I just try to keep my eyes on the prize and keep going forward,” said Serena Williams, who will seek her eighth Miami Open title when she plays Carla Suarez Navarro on Saturday. AP

A giant cake with purple frosting is nice. So are trophies. And $900,000 paychecks. But if Serena Williams wins her eighth Miami Open title on Saturday, it might be time to name the stadium court after her. Or give the oft-renamed tournament a permanent identity in her honor: The Serena Open.

No player has dominated the event like Williams, who has won seven singles titles since 2002. Andre Agassi won six titles from 1990 through 2003. Steffi Graf won five from 1987 through 1996.

No player is dominating tennis like Williams, who has held the No. 1 spot in the WTA rankings for 110 consecutive weeks.

The woman who at times seemed indifferent about her tennis career now seems intent on making the most of her unparalleled talent. The woman who was criticized for her hiatuses and hobbies is now admired for her remarkable staying power.

At 33, Williams has found peace of mind. With complacency her greatest foe, the 19-time Grand Slam champion has boiled the game down to its essence.

“I love what I do,” she said. “I don’t look back at anything because I feel like I could lose motivation. I could really say, ‘Wow, I did all that?’ I know how many Grand Slams I have won and how many gold medals I have won.

“But I just try to keep my eyes on the prize and keep going forward.”

Williams considers the Miami Open her hometown event because the tour stop is the closest one to Palm Beach Gardens, where she spent part of her youth and lives now with sister Venus.

The sultry weather, subtropical surroundings and sentiment of Serena-adoring fans all play in Williams’ favor when she’s at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park.

“There’s something about Miami — I just feel so good here,” Williams said of her comfort level. “It feels like home.”

Last year in the final, Williams beat Li Na in two sets; the year before she beat Maria Sharapova in three.

On Saturday, she faces 12th-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro, who upset Andrea Petkovic 6-3, 6-3 to reach her first career final in a major tournament.

There’s no reason to think that Williams is ripe for a surprise, although she did hit 59 unforced errors in her 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 semifinal victory over No. 3 seed Simona Halep.

“I had more errors than I did in my last match, which I thought was impossible,” Williams said. “I’m just not at my best level right now, and it’s a little frustrating.”

But she has been good enough to keep everybody else thinking they’re playing for No. 2.

“She’s writing history,” Ana Ivanovic said.

Williams’ desire deserted her in 2006, when her ranking plunged to 139, and got the best of her in 2009, when she insulted a lineswoman with an angry outburst at the U.S. Open. The mature Serena has found a balance.

“You can reach a point where you get used to winning,” Caroline Wozniacki said. “Serena goes out to practice and she wants to get better. She’s not happy with what she’s achieved. She wants to achieve more.”

Williams faces another challenger in Suarez Navarro, the Spaniard who is short in stature and a proponent of long siestas. She’ll ascend to the top 10 in next week’s rankings. She’s 8-3 against top-20 players in 2015. Like countryman Rafael Nadal, she’s capable of outhitting opponents from the baseline. She annihilated Petkovic’s second serve.

Yet Williams, who is 4-0 against Suarez Navarro, consistently finds ways to adjust. Then, she cranks up her serve, picks up her speed. She agreed — in a matter-of-fact tone, not bragging — that if she’s playing her best, a match is hers to control: “Without pontificating, it’s difficult to beat me.”

“I haven’t practiced a lot going into these last two tournaments,” said Williams, who sustained a knee injury and withdrew from Indian Wells prior to Miami. “Somehow I’ve improvised my way to the finals.”

Williams won her 19th Grand Slam at the Australian Open two months ago. Margaret Court holds the record with 24 Slam titles. Graf won 22. Williams gets asked often about chasing those milestones.

“I think I have a chance to get 20,” she said. “I just take it one at a time. If I start thinking too far in advance — and that’s what I did last year — I couldn’t even get past the fourth round of a Slam. After that I won two Slams in a row after I changed my way of thinking.”

Williams has won six Slams since turning 30. She and her father, Richard, used to swear that she and Venus would be done with tennis and pursuing entrepreneurial careers by 25.

“I believed that and never thought I’d be doing this so long,” she said. “I don’t feel old at all. That’s what keeps me in it. I’m like, I’ve been on the tour 100 years. But I love it more than ever.”

She mentioned seeing an old photograph of herself in a stroller on a tennis court and realizing “my destiny was to play tennis.”

Venus, enjoying a resurgence at 35, keeps her sister going. They want to win more Slams in doubles, too.

“We still live together, which is probably why I still feel so young — haven’t quite grown up,” she said.

Venus’ ability to cope with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease, has also inspired Williams. An eighth Miami title? More Slams? Why not cement her place as No. 1 of all time?

“What Venus has gone through has really motivated me,” she said. “I was really motivated by her spirit and fight. I feel I can be better because of Venus.”

Serena Williams vs. Carla Suarez Navarro





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