One year ago in Brisbane, Serena Williams said she had never really liked tennis all that much and given her disdain for exercise, never quite worked out how she found herself one of the all-time greats.
It was a perplexing admission for a woman who had, by that point, picked up a reasonable bounty of 13 Grand Slam titles. As it turned out, tennis for her was a treatable condition she had grown to live with, rather than a passion to indulge.
Twelve months, two Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal later, Williams’ fiery fling with the game that has made her more that $40 million is on again. This is bad news for rivals given what she did to them in 2012, at least part of which the game seemed little more than a paying gig.
As the howling wind whipped around Pat Rafter Arena on the first day of the Brisbane International, Williams breezed in and out with the most nonchalant of round one victories.
Apart from the occasional grimace as the ball floated away in the bluster, Williams picked apart countrywoman Varvara Lepchenko 6-2 6-1 in 59 minutes with the minimum of fuss. Only when she locked up for the afternoon did she allow a smile.
Later, Williams said her love for the sport has returned, spurred on by a wonderful second half of the year that included a title at Wimbledon, the US Open and gold at the London Olympics, where she threw herself wholeheartedly into the patriotic fervour of Team USA.
After some time off and some surgical tinkering to her big toes, Williams is back, adoring tennis once more and quite possibly better than ever.
“I have (fallen back in love with tennis). When I get to travel the world and go different places and do something and have fun - holding up trophies is always really cool - so I think it’s a really cool time and a really cool experience.”
Tennis – isn’t it cool? For most of the women’s tour, holding up a trophy is a lifelong dream. For Williams, such is her current dominance of the game, it’s just one of those fun little perks along the way.
Contrast that to 12 months ago at the same venue, when a less-motivated Williams said: “I mean, I don’t love tennis today, but I’m here and I can’t live without it. I’ve actually never liked sports and I never understood how I became an athlete.”
Some of her peers wish she hadn’t, especially given that one game into the new season there is already talk of a Serena Grand Slam. But Williams has little doubt Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka will be thinking along the same lines.
“For me? Absolutely. I think whoever wins the Australian Open will have that same thought. There’s no way Victoria, Maria don’t feel the same way,” Williams said.
Injuries curtailed Williams’ surge into last season but there is little holding her back this time. She continues to ride the highs of triumphs in New York and two in London, one in which she took the singles gold at the Olympics.
Such was her thrill to stand on the podium that she has made Rio in 2016 an enduring priority.
“I love the Olympics. I’m the ultimate Olympian, meaning that I’m involved and I’m a complete team person. Anyone with a USA shirt or flag or anyone, I’d scream,” Williams said.
“I saw sports I’d never even watched before. I love it. One of my main goals is to make it to Rio. I just can’t let go of the Olympic dream.”
Seventh seed Samantha Stosur begins her campaign on Pat Rafter Arena on Monday night, where she meets Swede Sofia Arvidsson.
Australia’s highest ranked man Marinko Matosevic meets Japan’s fifth seed Kei Nishikori in the afternoon session, while Gold Coast wildcard Ben Mitchell takes on Marcos Baghdatis in the final match of the evening.
There was good news for the Australians on day one, with Jarmila Gajdosova defeating Italian Roberta Vinci 4-6 6-1 6-3 to meet Maria Sharapova in round two.
It was an emotional win for Gajdasova, with the 25-year-old having a difficult past 18 months that culminated with the death of her mother due to throat cancer in September.