Just over two hours after taking the court, Serena Williams was crowned the Wimbledon ladies' singles champion for the fifth time. Ten years after she first claimed the Venus Rosewater Dish, the American powered her way to a 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 victory over Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska. Serena's opponent in that match ten years prior, older sister Venus, was in the stands, having been dispatched from singles earlier in the fortnight, but still alive with her baby sister in the doubles. As much as the one-time grass court dominatrix Venus was in a different position than she was ten years ago, so too was her Serena. The brash exuberance of Serena's youth having been replaced by the anxiousness of a veteran champion knowing that she only has so many chances to climb the sport's highest heights again and knowing that the tests would not be any easier because of who she was or what things she's done. She knew she had to take the victory, and although there were nerves, ultimately that's what Serena did today.
One of the low points of ESPN's largely excellent coverage of Wimbledon this year, was the repeated insistence that this American audience might not know Serena's opponent, World No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska. While that may have been true for the guy who rolled over on the couch expecting to see SportsCenter playing on its traditional Saturday morning perpetual loop (and instead found himself staring at Serena or her leggy brunette opponent) every tennis fan of any consequence knows the Pole. They know her from when Maria Sharapova threw a calculated bit of shade her way, "Isn't she back in Poland already? When did she get a chance to say that?" Sharapova jabbed when Radwanska came out against the Russian's grunting after losing her Australian Open quarterfinal. We got to know her better when she sent Sharapova back home a couple of months later, defeating the Siberian Siren in the finals of the big Miami tournament. Serena certainly knew her too. It had been four years since they last met, but Williams had no illusion that Radwanska would be anything other than a serious challenge to her bid for the title. "Agnieszka has had a better year than I have," Serena admitted to the press yesterday. "She's been way more consistent than me...she's ranked higher than me. She deserves to be."
Consistency has been Williams' enemy as she gets older and understandably so. " The pressure builds up the older you get," fellow Wimbledon legend Martina Navratilova opined when she was a thirty something and lost to a then teenaged Jennifer Capriati here on this same, though roofless, Centre Court almost twenty years ago. After almost serving her opponent a bagel in her inaugural Breakfast at Wimbledon, the pressure began to mount on Williams. While she served more aces in the second set, than the first, seven versus three respectively, Williams' first serve percentage dipped to 54% from 63% in the opening stanza. Radwanska was able to keep the second set close, reverse an early break to draw even at 4-all and then take advantage of an error-strewn game to snatch the second set.
Radwanska at that crucial point had found the key to beating this version of Serena Williams in big moments...Serena Williams' self-destruct button. Post-pulmonary embolism Serena remains one of the most forbidding challenges in the women's game, the difference is that she doesn't have the same killer cool she used to when the stakes are high. That's deadly in tennis. The cruelty of this sport, and why it's so consistently compelling at the same time, is that you have to keep winning; points, games, sets before you win a match or a tournament. There's no clock to run out. Break points, set points, match points don't mean anything unless you convert them. Victory is possible only once you've reached the game's standard, a winning scoreline. That's what Serena was up against, and while she's been able to pull off the smaller wins, games, sets, matches, even smaller events, the reason she came back, victory at the sport's absolute highest level, the major tournaments, has been frustratingly elusive over this past year.
Remember the desperation with which she stalked the baseline after Eva Asderaki called a hindrance as she desperately tried to fire herself up, drowning against Samantha Stosur in a US Open final in which she was heavily favored to win? Recall the ankle injury suffered on court in Brisbane that left an impressively fit, focused Williams below the physical standard she would need to get past Ekaterina Makarova and contend for an Open era record-extending sixth Australian Open title? How about the tears on the changeover against Virginie Razzano in the first round of Roland Garros when Serena realized she had choked away the second set? Yes, it was a just first round, but Serena made a commitment to win Paris this year, "The French Open was so disappointing," Serena said. " Because I won Charleston and I won Madrid. I did extremely well in Rome. I was undefeated on clay. I had a lot of confidence. You know, when I lost that, that really got me down."
Remember that Serena was World No. 1 again, and had just won the Wimbledon championship a week prior in 2010 when a glass shattered on her foot in Germany, sliced a tendon and ripped her from the game she was just seeming to truly appreciate for something beyond it's place in the pantheon of Brand Serena, while simultaneously sending her on a year-long, ultimately life-threatening ordeal that took her away from tennis and tennis away from her.
Cognizant watchers knew the nerves would come today on Serena's side, we also knew that Radwanska was a fine enough opponent to exploit them with alacrity. What we weren't quite sure about was Serena's response. In those other matches, the combination of nerves and/or bad luck foreshadowed a collapse from the former World No. 1. This time, things were different, at one point Serena rained down four consecutive aces to win a game, she had 100 through the tournament. We can't forget Radwanska was playing in her first major final, she had more than enough reason to just choke the match away. To her credit, she didn't. In the third set, Radwanska served a match high 74% first serves, the biggest change was that her average second serve speed came down five miles per hour from where it had been throughout the rest of the match. We're talking about the margins here, but where Serena had five return winners to eight return unforced errors in the second set, which Radwanska won; those numbers reversed in the third, along with Williams' fortune. "I was just fighting till the end, and I really tried, " Radwanska said of that third set. "But in the end, I think she was starting to play much better. She starts to be very focused each point, play some good rallies...she really did some great shots in the end."
To win Wimbledon, Serena had to get over her injuries, her opponent and ultimately her most difficult opponent, herself. She's has never done things the easy way, there's always an element of drama. And as we watched her begin to solidify her hold on the title today, all knew that somewhere Jie Zheng was cursing herself for letting Williams off the hook when she lost 9-7 to her in the third set a few days ago. At the same time, getting past that hurdle seemed to steel Serena a bit. When asked whether this title was different, more special, Serena said, "Well, each title is definitely special. This one is super special. It’s Wimbledon. I’ve wanted to win here so bad. Oh, my gosh, I still can’t believe that I was able to come through and win my seven matches, yes. So each one’s different. This one obviously is special to me because it’s a huge comeback for me. You know, I couldn’t ask for anything else. I really couldn’t."
After today's performance, neither could her fans or this sport of tennis. With 14 singles Grand Slam titles now, and adding another title in the doubles with sister Venus for good measure, the Serena Williams who won that first Wimbledon ten years ago wasn't necessarily back; but a pretty damned good one had shown up in her place.