The last time Asia Muhammad of Las Vegas and former doubles partner Maria Sanchez won a WTA doubles title their opponents were Monique Adamczak and Jessica Moore, whose names don’t exactly resonate as if shot out of a tennis cannon.
The time before that, it was Darija Jurak and Xenia Knoll.
But over the weekend, Muhammad and Taylor Townsend defeated Serena Williams, the world’s No. 1-ranked player on eight occasions, and Caroline Wozniacki, twice a No. 1 herself, 6-4, 6-4 in the final of the ASB Classic in New Zealand.
Those two you might have heard of.
“Obviously, it’s really great for your confidence,” a still-buoyant Muhammad said when reached by phone at Auckland Airport on Sunday night on her way to the Australian Open in Melbourne after earning her fifth WTA doubles title.
The 28-year-old former junior prodigy has been around the world chasing her dream. She rarely gets butterflies playing tennis any more. Not even on center court.
But “if you don’t get nervous playing against Serena, you might want to get checked out,” she said as Qantas Airways nonstop flights to Oceania nations were being announced.
“I was really nervous. But at the same time I was weirdly calm. Just trying to focus on what I needed to do to have the best chance of having a good performance.”
That’s usually the most one who is still chasing the dream can hope for against iconic opponents such as Serena and Wozniacki who already have achieved it.
“But if you don’t feel like you can win, there’s no point even going out on the court,” Muhammad said.
Serena and Wozniacki are like Alabama and Clemson in college football: They have been No. 1, or close to it, for a long time.
Serena defeated American Jessica Pegula at Auckland for her first singles title since since giving berth to a daughter in 2017. The 38-year-old legend has won 23 Grand Slam titles, more than any man or woman in the modern era.
Wozniacki, 29, said last month she would retire after the Australian Open, which she won just two years ago.
Before introducing herself to the Kiwis, Muhammad’s career highlight was advancing to the finals of the Tennis Channel Open in her hometown as a 16-year-old, when the sky and the Williams sisters — Serena’s sister, Venus, has won Wimbledon five times — seemed to be her only limits.
But it’s never easy for a young woman to span the globe alone while playing tennis. Muhammad’s highest singles ranking was 124th in April 2017. She’s currently No. 234 with a career record of 282-236.
It has been 12 years since she made that run in her hometown. In pro tennis, that can seem like a lifetime.
“I was so young,” Muhammad said in comparing the bookend achievements of her career. “Both were really good but this (beating Serena and Wozniacki) is on a much bigger scale.”
Muhammad and the Chicago-born Townsend were unseeded. But the lack of respect from the tournament committee and the presence of legends on the other side of the court did not prevent the Las Vegan from improving her record in WTA doubles finals to 5-0. It was Serena Williams’ first defeat in a doubles final since 1999, when she and Venus lost 6-4, 6-1 to Lindsay Davenport and Corinia Morariu in Carlsbad, California.
Serena and Wozniacki were playing together for the first time. Muhammad and Townsend have been a team on and off since 2013. They also are friends away from the court. That helps a lot, Muhammad said.
As the match wore on, you could see their confidence growing, said Tim Blenkiron, a former NCAA doubles champion at UNLV and Muhammad’s longtime coach at Las Vegas’ No Quit Academy.
“This one wasn’t about tennis so much, but overcoming in your mind who was on the other side,” Blenkiron said. “I thought they did an unbelievably good job with that.”
The WTA put up a video that showed Serena and Wozniacki walking onto the court to boisterous cheers, with Muhammad and Townsend sort of sneaking in behind.
After match point and hugs at center court, the reaction was more subdued.
But when Muhammad tapped the heel of her hand to her racket in saluting the crowd, it cheered more loudly.
The ovation did not resonate as if shot out of a tennis cannon. But when you’re 28 and still chasing the dream, it must have sounded like it.
— WTA (@WTA) January 12, 2020
Asia Muhammad on tour
— Turned pro: 2007
— WTA doubles ranking: 44
— WTA singles ranking: 214
— WTA doubles titles: 5
— ITF career titles: 42 (33 doubles, 9 singles)
— WTA career prize money: $878,422
— Did you know: Muhammad’s brother, Shabazz, was a basketball star at UCLA and played five seasons in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks.