Before the events of Tuesday morning, the chances of Serena Williams being seen on a tennis court again in New Zealand felt pretty remote.
As a scenario, it appeared to be in the impossible to imagine category, like John Mitchell coaching the All Blacks again or Michael Cheika running meditation workshops.
But it’s happened, and Serena Jameka Williams will be the headline act at the 2020 ASB Classic.
When she came in 2017 it seemed like a once in a lifetime event; sporting royalty gracing our boutique tournament at the bottom of the world.
A bit like Tiger Woods playing at Paraparaumu in 2002, George Best and Manchester United at Carlaw Park in 1967 or Bjorn Borg thrilling Stanley street crowds in 1974.
Williams enjoyed her visit last time, until her infamous 4-6 7-6 (5) 4-6 second round loss to then world No 53 Madison Brengle.
The American made a career high 88 errors on a blustery day, and didn’t hold back afterwards.
“I would say it’s my least favourite conditions I’ve ever played in,” said Williams, before adding that the ASB Classic “[was] not a great opportunity to assess your game.”
To her credit Wiliams also labelled her mistake-ridden display “unprofessional” but made it clear she couldn’t wait to get out of Dodge.
“At least I can get out of these conditions so I can get somewhere better, and warmer weather too,” said Williams. “I can take solace in the fact that the conditions won’t be like this is Melbourne.”
But she’s back, and will again dominate the sporting media landscape here in early January.
How did it happen?
The genesis was a ‘clear the air’ meeting at the 2017 Australian Open a week after her unhappy Auckland exit, where her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, agent Jill Smoller and Williams sat down with ASB Classic tournament director Karl Budge.
“It was all raw emotion at the time [after the match] but on reflection she probably would have phrased things in a different way,” said Budge. “We moved on really quickly and there really wasn’t any bad blood. It was just how about we get this right next time…how do we get you back?
Serena indicated she was open to playing here again, and became the primary target for Budge heading into this year.
After a brief chat in Melbourne in January it was agreed they would catch up during the American summer swing, and a 15 minute meeting at the Miami Open in March sealed the deal.
“It was a yes before we even talked about anything,” said Budge. “It was a place she wanted to start her year and we were pretty obliging, funnily enough. It was a really quick conversation. She said ‘Yup, I really want to make this happen, let’s go away and do it’.”
For her part Williams said a sense of unfinished business fuelled her decision to return.
“Oh man, I want to win that title so bad,” said world No 8 Williams in a statement. “Last time I was there I had so much going on and although I fought through to win my first match, I know I didn’t play to my level. I have such amazing memories that are really special to me from Auckland. I would really like to add some on court memories to that list.”
It’s a massive coup for the event, as the 37-year-old is a true sporting legend.
Twenty three grand slam singles titles, nine other major finals and a stack of doubles successes with sister Venus.
Williams has also spent 319 weeks as world No 1, in a career of remarkable longevity.
Williams won her first grand slam back in 1999, when Jacinda Ardern was studying at the University of Waikato, Bill Clinton was United States President and Richie McCaw was in high school.
Probably the best measure of her greatness is that for most of the last two decades, there has rarely been a match where she hasn’t started favourite.
She generally doesn’t play International level events (the third tier) on the WTA tour, and the 2017 ASB Classic was her first in several years.
But she enjoyed almost all of her Auckland experience last time, including a helicopter trip to a private beach on Waiheke Island where she announced her engagement to Alexis Ohanian, and that resonated in the memory.
Williams has also realized she has to adjust her schedule, and play more, as conditioning has ultimately let her down in recent grand slams.
She is driven to break Margaret Court’s all time grand slam record (24), and the 2020 Australian Open is another chance.
Auckland also offers the benefit of offering ‘rock star’ treatment, whereas in Brisbane she will be one of a bevy of big names, with the new ATP Cup on and local favourite Ash Barty in town.
Budge is also still hopeful that Venus Williams will also come back to Auckland, though she has yet to decide her schedule for 2020.
“We would love her back and hope we get our David Ferrer (farewell) moment with Venus at some stage,” said Budge. “I will move heaven and earth to make it happen if she decides to come.”