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Dominant Serena Can Still Build on Legacy
In search of the appropriate karaoke song for her latest after-midnight Grand Slam victory party, Serena Williams settled on "I Will Survive. " "I really, really felt those words, " Williams said later as she spoke with reporters in Midtown earlier this week. She arrived looking even more imposing than usual in a form-fitting white dress, abundant jewellry and a pair of Christian Louboutin stilettos that pushed the 5-foot-9 Williams well above 6 feet.
But then, why shouldn't she be walking particularly tall at this stage of her career? Traditional rivals like Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Amêlie Mauresmo, Justine Henin and now Kim Clijsters have faded and retired. Her good friend Andy Roddick, the biggest American men's star and a fellow 30-year-old, just played his final tournament, too.
"I've seen too many people retire in my career, " Williams said. Yet she survives and, more surprisingly, thrives. The comeback has become such a tennis plot staple that it verges on clichê. But Williams, one of the most ferocious competitors in tennis's lengthy history, has elevated the comeback to a higher art form: a tribute to her enduring drive and enduring edge in power in a sport where other champions have been caught from behind, but where she just won her 15th Grand Slam singles title.
"I don't feel like it's bonus time, " she said of victory. "I feel like it's time I deserve to have that I missed. "
Last year, she was fearing for her life as she had emergency treatment for blood clots in her lungs. This year, she has put together one of her finest seasons: compiling a 53-4 record and winning Wimbledon, two Olympic gold medals and, on Sunday, the US Open with an error-filled, winner-filled, drama-filled victory over Victoria Azarenka that might have been the best theatre of all of Williams's 15 victories in Grand Slam singles finals.
Williams quibbled with that, putting her three-set win over her sister Venus at the 2003 Australian Open at the top of the list.
But the final match was no family affair with all its attendant mixed emotions. It was full-throated, fully focused combat. Even though Williams has had more symbolic victories in her career, including the 2007 Australian Open with a world ranking of No. 82 or even Wimbledon this year, this triumph had plenty of full-circle qualities, too.
New York was the city where she broke through at age 17 to win her first Major singles title. It is also the city where her temperamental outbursts over officials' calls in 2009 and 2011 have deepened the ambivalence she has long generated amid American and global audiences. Even before then, she was a divisive figure, perhaps because, for all her vulnerability off court, she has long projected so little of it between the lines.
But there was no doubt which player the crowd was pulling for Sunday night, and Williams, for a change at Flushing Meadows, did not endanger that good will by losing her cool. "It's been a love and then hate, hate, hate, hate, hate relationship, " Williams said. "It was good to get back. I don't feel completely comfortable still. You never know what's going to happen, but I do feel much better about the place. I love the crowd. Especially last year, the crowd was so supportive and this year was incredibly supportive. I loved that. But the officials. . . "
She is unquestionably the greatest player of her generation, just as her father, Richard Williams, once suspected she would be despite the talent and achievements of her older sister Venus, who won the last of her seven Major singles titles in 2008 at Wimbledon.
But Serena Williams, like Roger Federer before her, is in strong position to encroach on previous generations and is now the first woman in the Open era to have won a Grand Slam singles title 13 years after winning her first.
"She should be the best ever. Why not?" said Billie Jean King, who won 12 Major singles titles from 1967 to 1975 and later mentored Williams on the United States Fed Cup team. "But she's got to stay disciplined and fit. When I was captain of Fed Cup, I had a long talk with her, and I had a similar talk with Martina Navratilova when she was young and said, 'You could be the greatest ever. ' Now Serena could be the greatest ever, because every generation should get better. She's on her way, but she's still got a way to go. "
Despite King's enthusiasm, Williams, who turns 31 on Sept. 26, will probably not catch Margaret Court, who is first on the career list with 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
Nor does she have much chance of reeling in Steffi Graf, who is second with 22 titles.
But third place on the honour roll certainly looks in range if Williams can keep her momentum in the next two seasons. Helen Wills Moody is third, with 19, followed by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert with 18 and then Williams with 15.
"Well done, " Navratilova said to Williams on Twitter. "What a gutsy comeback in the third set, you are catching me and Chris, and I don't like it. " That was followed by the frowning-face icon, but Williams grinned when she heard about it.
"It's very motivating, " she said of the historical chase. "Since I plan on playing for a long time, definitely plausible. I have to make sure I stay healthy, positive and calm. If I never win another Grand Slam, then I've had a fabulous career and a historic career, and I've done some Major things. So I'm really excited either way. "
For now, she has a new and excited coach in her corner: the Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou who in June was still dreaming of working with a Grand Slam champion but now has two major titles and two gold medals on his rêsumê after serving as a consultant for Williams at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Open.
She has yet to lose a match with him in her players box. Their connection, at least from Williams's perspective, was happenstance. She was in Paris in May, depressed after losing in the first round of the French Open.
Mouratoglou was an acquaintance, and when she called him to ask if he could send her a practice partner, he invited her to his academy in the suburbs instead.
"I was playing really, really well before him;I mean excellent, but I also love Paris, " she said of Mouratoglou. "And I needed a place to train, and it was like, 'Where can I go?' And it works out great because it's a great facility to train at. I love to dance, and he fixed up a studio I can dance in, and once he did that, I knew we were going to be friends for life. "
The change of rhythm and routine clearly have played a role in her just-about-all-conquering summer, in which her only loss came in Ohio against German player Angelique Kerber. Though Williams will play exhibitions this year, she plans to play only two more tournaments: the Tier One event in Beijing and the year-end tour championship in Istanbul.
Though she remains only No. 4 in the rankings, in part because of her limited playing schedule and that first-round loss in Paris, there can be no doubt about who has been No. 1 of late. NYT NEWS SERVICE
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