Auckland: Serena Williams ended a three-year title drought and donated her winner’s cheque to victims of the Australian bushfires in an emotional WTA Auckland Classic tennis tournament final here, Sunday.
Serena raised expectations for this month’s Australian Open, where she can equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles, with her 6-3, 6-4 victory over Jessica Pegula – her first WTA trophy since she won in Melbourne in 2017.
The 38-year-old tempered celebrations as she donated her US $43,000 winner’s cheque to the Australian bushfire relief fund and described how the tragedy had affected her deeply.
“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,” Serena said with her choking with emotion. “I decided at the beginning of the tournament… I’d donate all my prize money for a great cause.”
This incidentally is Serena’s first title as a mother – since she won the Australian Open while pregnant. Her 73 WTA titles now stretch across three decades, after she won her first in 1999.
The tournament top seed slipped 1-3 behind in the first set against the unseeded Pegula, a fellow American. But once she found her range there was never any doubt about the final result, which Serena greeted by raising her arms in triumph while her husband Alexis Ohanian and two-year-old daughter Olympia looked on.
“It’s been a long time, I think you could see the relief on my face,” Serena said. She added that 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,” the former World No. 1 added.
Pegula, who has only one title to her credit, had stunned former World No.1 Caroline Wozniacki – a close friend of Serena – 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 Serena delivered and even broke her first serve.
Pegula held her own serve and appeared set to break again when Serena, by this stage yelling with every point she won, fought back from 15-40 to hold her second service game on the fifth deuce.
Serena 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, Serena held to love in the next game, broke Pegula again and then served to clinch the first set.
The second set was a virtual one-way affair with Serena breaking her rival in the third game of the set to seal her authority.