Serena Williams tries to win her first title since going on maternity leave as she faces younger compatriot Jessica Pegula in the final of the ASB Classic Auckland on Sunday.
Serena Williams vs Jessica Pegula is live from Auckland on Sunday 12 January at 5pm local/4am GMT
Williams has made a very successful comeback from maternity leave, returning less than a year after giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia and going on to work her way back into the world’s top 10, reaching four Grand Slam finals in 2018-19.
But the 23-time major champion still hasn’t won a title as a mother, and while it’s an incredible achievement to have made as many finals as she has over the past two years, especially with all her struggles with injury and while being forced to play a very limited schedule, it has become a bit of a glaring problem for the American. All of the opponents she’s faced in the four major finals she lost – Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep at Wimbledon, Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu at the US Open – produced absolutely sensational performances, but Williams was far from her best in all those finals, with her level of play often dipping alarmingly from the kind of tennis she has produced in the quarter- and semifinals. (The fifth final Williams has played in the past two years, the Rogers Cup last August, doesn’t count as she was forced to retire early on due to injury.)
This has been even stranger given that Williams’s overall record in finals is so good – 70-25 over the course of her career, winning 15 in a row in 2013-15.
So in terms of preparation for the Australian Open, where Williams will be bidding for an eighth title this year, one can’t imagine a better boost for the American coming in than to win a title, even if the International-level ASB Classic will not be among the bigger trophies in her 72-strong collection.
It’s not all about winning the title; Williams has really had a great week in terms of building up match fitness ahead of Melbourne, as she acknowledged herself. She’s played a lot of matches, reaching both the singles final and the doubles final with Caroline Wozniacki; she’s had some good scraps, having to dig herself out from a set down against Christina McHale and survive a late wobble against Laura Siegemund in the quarterfinals. And in the semifinals against Amanda Anisimova, the fast-rising American 20 years Williams’s junior, she produced her finest performance of the week, trouncing the youngster 6-1, 6-1 in 44 minutes. She broke Anisimova five times, dropped just nine points on her own serve, and hit 17 winners to six unforced errors.
Williams called the win ‘very satisfying’.
‘I’m feeling fit, I feel like I’ve had some good matches. Long rallies, short rallies, power players, the elements. This is exactly what I needed going into [the Australian Open in] Melbourne.
‘I feel like everyone that I’ve played has been a quality player. So I knew that I’d have to keep playing at a better level.’
It would no doubt also have been satisfying for Williams had she been facing her good friend Wozniacki in the singles final as well as playing alongside her in the doubles final, but compatriot Jessica Pegula put a stop to that as she ended the soon-to-retire Dane’s run.
World no. 82 Pegula’s career was hit hard by a knee injury in 2013-15, and it’s only in the last year or so that the 25-year-old American has started to come into her own. Pegula was ranked world no. 227 when she made her first WTA Tour final in 2018, qualifying for the main draw in Quebec City and keeping her run going all the way to the title match via victories over Petra Martic, Sofia Kenin and others. She finished runner-up to Pauline Parmentier, but ended the year at world no. 125, a climb of 596 places from where she started it.
Pegula broke into the top 100 after making the finals of the Newport Beach WTA 125k and the ITF Midland $100k at the start of last season, and went on to claim her maiden WTA Tour title at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., beating Katerina Siniakova, Lauren Davis, Iga Swiatek and Camila Giorgi. She only won one match in 2019 and ended the season on a six-match losing streak, but has got off to a great start in 2020 in Auckland. Her path through the draw has been a little fortuitous – she opened against Cici Bellis, who missed most of the 2019 season through injury, and faced Tamara Zidansek, the world no. 64, in the second round, while veteran Alize Cornet retired in the quarterfinals (Pegula was, to be fair, leading 6-0, 3-2 at the time).
But while Wozniacki might be about to retire, she hasn’t been playing like it, and I thought Pegula’s win over her in the semifinals was a good one. The Dane took the first set but Pegula played a very smart match, finding good tactics to stay with Wozniacki until the higher-ranked woman started to fade. In the end, it was a fairly emphatic victory for Pegula, who won 3-6, 6-4, 6-0 to reach her third WTA career final.
This will be the first meeting between Williams and Pegula, and the younger woman will be looking for her first win over a top-10 player in four attempts. Williams is the overwhelming favourite, and the far better player, but if she isn’t moving well on the day, or if the final nerves get to her, Pegula is the type who will do her best to take advantage. Still, I think that against the Williams serve, the Pegula return – which really wreaked havoc on Wozniacki’s serve – will prove much less effective. This is an opportunity for Williams to make perfect preparation for the first Grand Slam of the year by claiming her first title since the 2017 Australian Open.