Work first, love second for now

Engagement joy at the back of Serena's mind as she seeks 23rd Grand Slam singles crown

MELBOURNE • Serena Williams' drive to reach the overall record for Grand Slam titles was never more evident at Melbourne Park yesterday than when she revealed that her engagement to fiance Alexis Ohanian was being forced to take a back seat.

The world No. 2 announced her commitment to the social media entrepreneur shortly before the New Year and, while it was "great", she was pushing it to the back of her mind, at least until after Melbourne Park.

"I've said from the beginning, I just didn't want to think about it until after Australia because... Grand Slams mean a lot to me," the American tennis star said, ahead of her first-round clash with Switzerland's Belinda Bencic.

"It's almost a little unreal right now because I haven't taken it in. I won't allow it to sink in because I'm so focused... (on) training, cardio, all kinds of stuff."

Former world No. 1 Williams equalled Steffi Graf's Open era record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles last year when she clinched her seventh Wimbledon crown and sits just two away from the all-time record held by Australia's Margaret Court.

Following her London victory, she played in just two more tournaments, before shutting down her season to have treatment on a troublesome shoulder injury.

The 35-year-old returned to the court in Auckland last week but was upset by fellow American Madison Brengle in the second round, then created a minor controversy when she said she could not get to Melbourne fast enough.

Her quest for her seventh Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup begins on Tuesday, when temperatures are expected to top 38 deg C, against Bencic, who could be her most dangerous first-round opponent in years.

The Swiss teenager was ranked as high as No. 7 last February but struggled with injury and poor form over the remainder of the year, leading her to drop to 48th ahead of the season's opening Grand Slam.

The 19-year-old, however, made the fourth round at Melbourne Park last year and beat Williams the last time they met, in the Toronto semi-finals in 2015.

"It's never easy for me," Williams said. "So I always go out there and do my best. If I can play the way I've been practising, it will be fine."

Bencic said she cannot wait to test her skills once again against Williams.

"It's a big match, playing against Serena Williams. It's what everyone's working for," she said.

"I'm super pumped and excited that I get to play on the big court.

"Everyone is like, 'Oh, bad luck with the draw'. Me, I'm pretty happy and excited about it."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Work first, love second for now'. Subscribe