AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Serena Williams ended a three-year title drought and raised expectations for the Australian Open Sunday, January 12 when she overcame a sluggish start to beat outsider Jessica Pegula 6-3, 6-4 at the WTA Auckland Classic.
The 38-year-old and tournament top seed, who will attempt to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles in Melbourne this month, slipped 1-3 behind in the 1st set against the unseeded Pegula.
But once she found her range there was never any doubt about the final result, which Williams greeted by raising her arms in triumph while her husband Alexis Ohanian and two-year-old daughter Olympia looked on.
It is Williams’ first title since 2017 – and her first as a mother – since she won the Australian Open while pregnant. Her 73 WTA titles now stretch across 4 decades, after she won her first in 1999.
“It’s been a long time, I think you could see the relief on my face,” she said, adding she could feel her game sharpening up as she prepares to head to Melbourne.
“It definitely feels good, it feels like i was definitely improving as the week went on and obviously I needed to.”
Williams donated her Auckland winner’s check to Australia fire victims.
“I’ve been playing in Australia for over 20 years and it’s been really hard for me to watch all the news and everything that has been happening in Australia with all the fire and… animals and people that have lost their homes.”
“I decided at the beginning of the tournament… I’d donate all my prize money for a great cause.”
In addition to donating her winner’s check, Williams has also signed the dress she wore in the first round in Auckland and put it up for auction to raise funds for the Australian appeal.
Yelling with every point
Pegula, who has only one title to her credit, had stunned former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki – a close friend of Williams – in a three-set semifinal, winning every game in the deciding set.
The 25-year-old continued in the same fearless vein at the start of the final, seemingly untroubled by her heavily bandaged left thigh as she chased down everything Williams delivered and even broke Williams’ first serve.
Pegula held her own serve and appeared set to break again when an emotional Williams, by this stage yelling with every point she won, fought back from 15-40 to hold her second serve on the fifth deuce.
Williams eventually achieved a break of her own to level at 3-3, finding the power and precision that had deserted her until then.
With her confidence boosted, Williams held to love in the next game, broke Pegula again and then served to clinch the 1st set.
Pegula was down 0-40 at the start of the 2nd set before rallying to hold serve but the strain of facing the player who has dominated women’s tennis for two decades was showing.
Williams broke on Pegula’s next service game and stayed in front until the end of the set to take the title and end a sequence of five defeats in finals since her 2017 win in Melbourne.
In the semifinal, Williams also delivered a masterclass, needing only 43 minutes to down rising star Amanda Anisimova, 6-1, 6-1, and set up a showdown against Pegula.
The unsung Pegula, meanwhile, stunned Wozniacki in a three-set semifinal, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0.
Pegula, the 25-year-old daughter of NFL Buffalo Bills owner and natural gas magnate Terry Pegula, ranks 82nd in the world and won her only WTA title at the Washington Open last year.
Williams said she had been working hard to juggle tennis and motherhood as she targets a 24th Grand Slam at the Australian Open later in the month. – Rappler.com
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