Serena is just getting warmed up
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Dig just a little and there is often a reason for Serena Williams, a little-known source of motivation or hidden impetus behind her greatest accomplishments.
She might have felt slighted, embarrassed or annoyed by a particular defeat or an opponent.
And in more cases than not, Williams eventually rights that wrong with a victory or a championship.
At 32, Williams, a 6-3, 6-3 winner over Daniela Hantuchova in the third round of the Australian Open on Friday, is playing some of the best tennis in her career. The victory over Hantuchova was her 25th in a row and set a record, surpassing Margaret Court for most wins (61) at this tournament in the Open Era.
And afterward, she revealed another sliver of what is behind the brilliance of one of the great champions of our time when asked how, at her age, she does it?
"In life, 32 is young, you know? In sports it's old," she said. "But for whatever reason, I feel like I just never was really able to reach my full potential, and I feel like recently I have been able to do a little better. I just keep trying to improve on everything."
It is impossible to know how much it drives her that it took five years into her pro career to win her second Grand Slam tournament (three years after winning her first at age 17 at the 1999 US Open). Or that there were six years when, for one reason or another, she did not win one.
Whatever the case, Williams now is being given as good a chance as ever to win all four Slams in the calendar year, beginning with the Australian, which she has captured five times, the last time in 2010.
"I think what sets her apart in particular is that when she steps on the court, she believes she's going to win every single match," said 23-year-old American Alison Riske, who lost her third-round match Friday to No. 9 seed Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-4.
"And I think her consistency -- week in and week out, you pretty much know what you're going to get with Serena -- and in a sport, that's pretty much gold because you have to perform every day, and she does a great job of that."
At 30, Hantuchova, a semifinalist at the Australian Open in 2008 and second only to Serena's sister Venus in main draw matches played (764), can appreciate that even more, which is why Serena had an extra word and pat of the arm for her after their match.
"I've been through all those years with her and that's why I admire what she's done so much, because the game has improved -- it's much more physical and you don't get any more easy rounds, where before, maybe the first two, three rounds you kind of got through really without having to do much," Hantuchova said of Williams. "Now, if you're not ready from the first round, you're going to be out of the tournament. …
"I think she's getting better because the game is getting better. In order to be on top, you have to improve all the time, and that's what's incredible -- how she has managed to do that over the years -- and I respect that very much."
Williams started out a bit flat Friday, which for her meant Hantuchova winning her first service game at love, and Williams going down 15-40 in the third game before holding serve.
In the end, Williams still fought off five of six break points, still served at near 120 mph, still won 74 percent of her first serves.
"That's why she's the player she is," Hantuchova said. "She knows how to come up with the big shots when she needs to, not necessarily when it's not very important, but big points, she digs in and she knows what to do."
Williams, said Hantuchova, tried to conserve her energy in the 104-degree heat by trying to make the points shorter and by going for her serves. Williams might have been thinking the same thing about the rest of the tournament when she and sister Venus pulled out of doubles shortly after her singles win, citing a leg injury to Venus.
Either way, it is clear where Serena's motivation lies. She knows it, and so do her opponents.
"Well played Serena Williams," Hantuchova wrote on her Facebook page shortly after the match. "She's the best we've had in women's tennis ... ever."