U.S. Open: Serena still partying like it's 1999
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 11, 2012
The year was 1999 and newly crowned U.S. Open tennis champion Serena Williams joked that she might need to compete against men for a challenge worthy of her immense power and skills.
Times have changed; Williams, not so much.
Starting 13 years ago, when she bulldozed Martina Hingis 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) to win the U.S. Open, her first Grand Slam title, Williams’ athleticism and big hitting have always impressed and forced her competitors to ratchet up their power, too.
The same was true on Sunday, when Williams beat Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 in the U.S. Open final to win Grand Slam title No. 15.
But what is becoming as astounding as her tennis is Williams’ longevity at the top. Most athletes who last this long suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, injury and slumps in form and motivation at some point. But few roar back quite as emphatically as Williams in this golden summer of 2012 when she won Wimbledon, gold in singles and doubles at the London Olympics and, now, her fourth U.S. Open championship.
“Three decades — the ’90s, 2000s, 2010s. That’s kind of cool,” Williams said. In the professional era, no other woman has crafted such a sustained span of success at the same Grand Slam tournament. The previous record, 12 years, was owned by Martina Navratilova (Wimbledon, 1978 and 1990) and Chris Evert (French Open, 1974 and 1986).
Two weeks shy of 31, Williams makes age look irrelevant. Losing Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska noted this July that Williams still runs like an 18-year-old.
But Williams now also has the invaluable experience that comes from having played 19 major finals. Part of why she stayed cool Sunday, when Azarenka got to within two points of victory, was that Williams has dug herself out of so many similar holes in the past.
Williams also makes the computer ranking system look irrelevant. At the start of a major, she’s No.1 no matter what the seedings might say. Only twice — in 2002 and 2009 — has she finished the year as the top-ranked woman. But she is a giant compared to other women — think Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic or Azarenka, the current No. 1 — who reached the top spot but have made little or no mark on Grand Slam history. (Of the three, only Azarenka has a major title, the 2012 Australian Open.)
Williams joked at Wimbledon that she feels, mentally, like she’s 12. That must explain why, after all these years, she still seems so fresh. Her funky little dance after crushing Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 in the Olympic final and the way she joyfully bounces like on a pogo-stick after winning, all speak volumes about how she has managed to stay unjaded and make the business of winning seem so simple and uncluttered.
“I love holding up trophies,” she says.
At the time, the 11 trauma-filled months she endured in 2010-2011 looked as though they might mark the beginning of the end for Williams. She sliced open her feet on broken glass at a restaurant and then had blood clots in her lungs. Injecting herself twice a day with blood thinners to get rid of them led to a bloody bruise “the size of a grapefruit” on her stomach that was surgically removed. Her father said she didn’t think she’d play tennis again. When she came back, in June a year ago at Eastbourne, she was sluggish, hesitant and quickly out of breath.
But now it seems that whole nightmare has only boosted Williams’ desire to squeeze every last drop out of her talent while she still can. When Williams talks of playing at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, when she will be 34, her mental fortitude and her apparently insatiable appetite for tennis and for winning make that goal believable.
On the evidence of the last three months, she could by then have overtaken Navratilova and Evert’s hauls of 18 major singles titles each and be close to Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22.
Asked at the U.S. Open if she’s the best ever woman player, Williams stuttered uncharacteristically: “I’m, I’m, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not worthy of that title. I’m just Serena and I love playing tennis and I’m good at it. And just because I’m good at it doesn’t make me the best.”
As long as Graf remains ahead of her, Williams is right. But 13 years removed from her first Grand Slam title, Williams still knows how to party like it’s 1999.