Who but Williams could turn the entire flow of a tournament the way she does with sheer determination? A few weeks ago she was done, playing out, struggling for confidence and only hoping for a decent ceremonial send-off at the US Open. Now, with just a few training sessions, she’s a factor in her 24th Grand Slam singles title after defeating world runner-up, 26-year-old Anett Kontaveit, in a performance so powerful and moving you’d think that would be The crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium would set off a rock fall with their shouting.
Whatever happens after that, not even the craziest numerical tennis historian can quote Margaret Court, with her dusty 24 Grand Slam titles — more than half of them before the Open era of professional tennis — in the same sentence with Williams. No champion of past or present — not Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, or Steffi Graf — has stayed on top longer or won more. And no one, absolutely no one, in any sport, has ever fought from a place deeper in their stomach. “You know, that’s what I do best,” she told the crowd after beating Kontaveit 7-6 (7-4), 2-6, 6-2 on Wednesday night.
Among the many things that set Williams apart is that she does so as a tired working mom who has many things on her great mind. Don’t underestimate this achievement for a second, the difficulty of finding your shots again with so many different demands on them. When she came into the tournament, she had only played four games in 14 months and lost three of them. When she announced in a first-person article in Vogue that she was stepping away from sports and expanding her family and venture capital firm, you couldn’t help but notice the resigned tone.
Williams refused to use the word “retirement.” She preferred the “development”. Despite the verbal evasions, there was no question that she saw New York as the final end of her single career. Anyone who followed her remarks closely knew that. After losing to Harmony Tan in the first round at Wimbledon, she said: “Today was what I could do. At some point you have to deal with it.”
Her style of play, all thrust and punch attacks, has taken a huge toll on her body over the years – and she’s played after a cesarean and two pulmonary embolisms. Please name one athlete, in any endeavor, at any time, who could have remained such a factor while dealing with postpartum issues, breastfeeding and raising a toddler – and who was able to return after a months absence from the game, only to be viable great again, with a struggling 4-year-old in the eaves of the stadium, hauling her back onto her hip as soon as she walked back into the dressing room after beating Kontaveit.
Three weeks ago at a tournament in Toronto she had struggled to finally win anything, even if it was just two short sets against a player outside the top 50, Nuria Parrizas Diaz. “Listen, I was lucky to win a match. It’s been so long,” she said, “I’ve forgotten how it feels.”
Williams admitted, “I’m not where I normally am and I’m not where I want to be.”
“I guess there’s only one light at the end of the tunnel,” she added. “I don’t know, I guess I’m closer to the light, so . . . it has been for me lately. I can’t wait to reach that light.”
When asked what the light represents, she replied, “Freedom.”
But she also clung to the possibility that when she got to New York, something might turn inside her, that she might ignite the last fumes and feel a little greatness again on the big stage.
Well, she’s started to feel it – and now everyone can feel it building. In her first two matches, she played with a kind of level-headed, open curiosity, like we were wondering how much she could muster. Every shot on Wednesday night seemed a little harder until she delivered hammers and anvils at the end of the game. All told, Williams hit 38 winners against Kontaveit’s 32. The Estonian had 15 winners in the second set alone, which might have demoralized Williams, coupled with the fact that a one-game exchange had surpassed the two-hour mark. But instead of fading away, Williams somehow rose.
“I just thought, ‘Serena, you’ve already won. Just play. Be Serena,” she said after the win. “‘You’re better than that.’ I succeeded.”
Kontaveit was deceptively short and pale in yellow, but she had huge punches that could have sent Williams off the pitch. Instead, Williams charged so hard in the final game that she threw huge, sweeping volleys out of the air – shots that seemed to dynamize the crowd and all guesses as to what else she had.
“You know, I can’t do this forever,” she said just three weeks ago.
Maybe not. But she can do it for one more night.