At the 2010 Australian Open the tennis salon discussed the sport's "winningest" male player, Roger Federer, and marveled at the successful "unretirement" of Justine Henin, but no one could come up with a single word that adequately captured Serena Williams's almost pathological refusal to lose. The fallback clichés—tenacious, persistent, dogged—don't come close to doing it justice.
For all of Williams's power and athleticism, it's her ... well, whatever word best depicts her will to win... that is her true gift. And it was on vivid display in Melbourne. Whenever matches tightened, Williams seemed to flip a switch and turn on her best tennis. Whenever all looked dire—say, down a set and 4--0 to Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the quarterfinals—Williams fashioned an escape route. Whenever her body started to flag, she found a surge of energy. Anything to avoid leaving the court a loser. Her secret? She shrugs. "If I lose," she said, "I'm going out hard."
Facing her old rival Henin in last Saturday night's final, Williams won the first set but lost the second, and when she was down double break point early in the third, she had no momentum. So Williams inhaled, stepped to the line and clubbed a 122-mph ace. She followed that with a swinging forehand volley that few other players would have had the guts to try, much less the skill to execute. Crisis averted. Williams won five of the next six games and rolled to her 12th major singles title, taking another step toward that Graf-Evert-Navratilova suite.
"She's just an unbelievable fighter," lamented Henin.
Oracene Price explains her daughter's unshakable will this way: "I think it's innate. It's like when you're sleeping and dream that someone is holding you down. Do you quit or do you keep trying to get up? Serena's not one to back down."
Of course this doesn't always serve her so well. At the U.S. Open last September, Williams took issue with a foot-fault call and let loose a string of asterisks and ampersands, threatened the lineswoman with asphyxiation by tennis ball and earned an $82,500 fine and two years' probation from the Grand Slam Committee. Had it been up to some other tennis administrators, Williams would not have been allowed to defend her title in Australia.
Regardless, Williams was on her best behavior Down Under. She opened her mouth on court only to sing Green Day songs to herself for motivation. She took pains to praise her opponents, particularly her semifinal foe, Li Na of China, whose success in Melbourne (along with that of fellow semifinalist Zheng Jie) might cement the tennis boom in Asia. "It was important for me that some good come out [of the U.S. Open episode]," said Serena, who also teamed with her sister Venus to take the Aussie doubles championship. "That people see I'm not really like that."
Williams's only lapse in etiquette was in beating Henin and thereby abridging the tournament's most compelling plot line. In the spring of 2008 Henin was ranked No. 1 but, suffering from an absence of passion, abruptly retired. Barely touching her rackets, she spent the next 18 months traveling, reading and even singing on a European reality show. Her flame rekindled, she made a smashing return in the first Grand Slam event of her comeback, beating four members of the top 30.
In some respects it was as though she'd never left. Despite her elfin physique, Henin still zings the ball beautifully off both wings, possesses the most complete game on the women's side and fights harder than any player this side of Serena. On a tour in which versatile games and mental fitness are in short supply, Henin's return came not a moment too soon.
But in other respects Henin was unrecognizable from her old self. Known for her brutal intensity and opaque personality during Career 1.0, Henin now smiles abundantly and speaks candidly about her "spiritual journey," about "breathing the air differently" and about "knowing myself better." Justine Zen-in, as it were. "To stop two years ago and to come back, I think it's been two of the best decisions I took in my life," she said. "I am out of this bubble, and my motivation is back." Whew for that.
Speaking of motivation, where, one wondered before the tournament, would Roger Federer continue to find his? Last year he became a husband and the father of twin daughters. He also achieved his twin Holy Grails, winning his first French Open and securing his 15th career Grand Slam singles title to set the alltime mark. Once you've caught history, what's left to chase?
He provided one answer the weekend before the tournament began. Watching TV in his hotel room, Federer was horrified by images of the Haiti earthquake. Using some of the capital he's amassed in his time as the benevolent despot of tennis—"I have connections, you know," he joked later—Federer called up colleagues on both tours, including Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick, and asked if they would participate in an impromptu fund-raiser, Hit for Haiti. They happily agreed.
On barely 24 hours' notice, without any corporate interference or the typical tennis infighting, the event came off magnificently on Jan. 17, when 15,000 fans each made a $10 donation and packed Rod Laver Arena to watch the sport's brightest stars play for fun. "There's a responsibility that comes with what we do," says Federer. "We have the [platform] to do more than hit tennis balls." (It was hard not to note that as Federer was organizing a humanitarian benefit, the athlete to whom he's most often compared as a competitor was reportedly being treated for sex addiction at a Mississippi clinic.)
Federer recognizes that his moral authority is at its height when he maintains his on-court success. While he hadn't won a tournament since last summer, he was at his numinous, luminous best in Melbourne, beating opponents with his usual blend of luxuriant strokes, fluid movement and a—what's the word again?—that recalled Serena, playing his best when the situation demanded it. But his success in this tournament was also a function of his fitness, maybe the one component of his game that's still underrated. While most of Federer's colleagues were huffing and puffing or pulling up lame (most distressingly Nadal, who suffered a small tear in the back of his right knee and reportedly will be sidelined for four weeks)—Federer, now 28, scrambled and stretched through 23 sets with neither ailment nor injury. Plus he schlepped a double stroller around Melbourne Park. "It doesn't just come easy," he says of his tennis dominance. "I put in a lot of work in the off-season."
In Sunday's final Federer beat Scotland's Andy Murray 6--3, 6--4, 7--6 by playing, in his own estimation, as well as ever. He won the first two sets with aggression and with shot making that bordered on ostentatious. He won the third set with a display of superior guts in a gripping 24-point tiebreaker. Afterward he went way past false modesty. "Look, there's no secret behind it," he said. "You know, I'm definitely a very talented player. I always knew I had something special, but I didn't know it was like, you know, that crazy."
For those still counting, it was Federer's 16th major singles title. And with Nadal's status uncertain for the French Open, Federer, like Serena, suddenly has a real shot at winning the Grand Slam in 2010. But he has other ambitions too. His next event? A humanitarian visit to Ethiopia this month.
After the final, standing under a black sky in the eucalyptus-scented air, Federer savored another milestone. His tournament summation could just as easily have applied to the women's champ: "Sometimes you're winning easy; sometimes you're finding a way to win. That's being a champion, I guess."
Now on SI.com
Jon Wertheim answers your tennis questions in his weekly mailbag at SI.com/tennis
California's Bob and Mike Bryan, who won their eighth Grand Slam men's doubles championship last Saturday, weren't the only successful twins in Melbourne: Karolina Pliskova, 17, of the Czech Republic won the girls' singles title, while twin sister Kristyna reached the quarterfinals.... Tiago Fernandes, 17, of Brazil (below) won the boys' singles championship.... In reaching the women's singles final, Justine Henin eclipsed $20 million in career prize money.... Roger Federer became the first father to win a Grand Slam singles crown since Andre Agassi won in Melbourne in 2003.... Croatia's Ivo Karlovic lost in the fourth round but led the Australian Open with 121 aces. For comparison, Federer played seven matches and had 58.
Photograph by DAVID CALLOW
ASPHALT ANGEL A jubilant Williams sprawled on the court after her hard-fought victory in the final.
SHUJI KAJIYAMA/AP (FERNANDES)
SECOND BEST Henin (left) and Murray (above, foreground, with Federer) came up short against the world No. 1s.
[See caption above]