The ball skidded off the grass of Centre Court at a sharp angle, a clean winner had it been hit against almost any other player. But Serena Williams was in thundering pursuit. It was late in the first set of the Wimbledon final last Saturday, and Williams and her opponent, Vera Zvonareva, had each held serve through the first seven games. This was a break point, though, and damned if Williams was going to lose it.
Drawing back her racket as she ran, Williams relied on her muscular lower body to get her to the ball in time. She then relied on her muscular upper body, turning her shoulders, cocking her right arm and pasting the ball up the line and beyond Zvonareva's outstretched racket—as cold-blooded a running forehand as you could hope to see. The shot brought to bear all of Williams's many gifts, some of them Jehovah-given, others the result of hard work: speed, strength, agility, execution, accuracy and, not least, guts.
As she hit the ball, Williams let loose her signature grunt, EEEEEE-yaaaahh! a bellicose shriek that starts deep in her belly. After admiring her handiwork, she flexed her left arm, kicked up a leg and dropped to a knee.
The crowd, many of them British gentry—men in blazers and women in jelly bean--colored sundresses—froze. Was this or was this not the Ladies' Championships? Eventually they collected themselves, giggling and groaning, so distracted by Williams's unconventional antics that they'd forgotten the brilliant shotmaking that had occasioned her celebration.
There, in a single sequence, is the tennis career of 28-year-old Serena Williams. Time and again her brilliant play has been obscured by her extravagant theatrics and controversial behavior. That can be blamed partly on tennis's stodginess, partly on Williams's inability to get out of her own way. But she doesn't care. She crashed the WTA cotillion on her own terms, and more than a decade later, well, that's still how she rolls.
That running forehand? It broke Zvonareva, literally and figuratively. The Russian mustered just two more games the rest of the afternoon in a 6--3, 6--2 defeat. Williams walked off with her fourth Wimbledon singles trophy and 13th career Grand Slam singles title. She solidified her No. 1 ranking. She put still more distance between herself and her older sister, Venus—who lost in the quarterfinals to the 82nd-ranked player—further proof that the Williamses are not a monolith. Beyond that, Serena demonstrated yet again that there has never been a better female player. Yes, that's right. Strip away the nonsense and the breaches of etiquette and there's only this: Serena Williams is the GOAT, the Greatest of All Time.
Wait—how can that be? Doesn't Williams still trail five players—Margaret Smith Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), Chris Evert (18) and Martina Navratilova (18)—in major singles titles, the usual benchmark for excellence? Yes, but Williams plays in a far more competitive and demanding era. (Plus, none of the others had to play her sister in a Grand Slam final.) She has also won 12 major women's doubles titles, two major mixed doubles titles and two Olympic women's doubles gold medals. She has earned Grand Slam titles on all surfaces. She has been winning them since she was 17.
But numbers are only part of the discussion. The most important stroke in tennis is the serve, and Williams's is the most fearsome in women's history, an assertion echoed by everyone from Navratilova to Lindsay Davenport. Serena stands at the service line, tosses the ball high, rocks back on her right heel, uncoils her 5' 10" frame and delivers a thunderbolt that not only travels as fast as 125 mph but is also impeccably placed and often garnished with spin. Over the last two weeks she set the Wimbledon women's record with 89 aces. The next closest competitor had 30.
While Williams is known for sending heat-seeking missiles off both flanks—her forehand is more explosive, her backhand steadier, but both provide an ample supply of winners—her game is about more than aggression. Asked what made Serena such a tough opponent, Zvonareva remarked, "You take more risks because you know she's such a great mover and can play great defense." Wait, she plays defense, too? Little wonder Billie Jean King gushed last week that Serena is "the best athlete we've ever had."
Irreverent as it sounds, if you matched tennis's female legends head-to-head—all at their best, with identical equipment—Williams wouldn't just beat the others; she would crush them. Graf's scythelike slice backhand? Williams would bend her knees and tee off on it. Evert's consistency? Serena would simply overpower Chrissie. Navratilova's attacking game? Williams would whistle returns by the peerless serve-and-volleyer before she got to net. Plus, there has never been a player of Williams's mental toughness, a refusal to lose that kicks in even in emotional matches against Venus, her sister and best friend. "The thought of having to play her," says two-time U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin, "is honestly kind of scary."
One great knock on Williams has always been her wavering commitment to the game, her dabbling in acting and fashion design and various other pet projects that have kept her from competing week in, week out. But that, too, needs to be reconsidered, especially given the fate of her contemporaries, many of whom burned out on the tour. The good vibes at Wimbledon were interrupted briefly last week by the news that Jennifer Capriati had been hospitalized in Florida for a prescription-drug overdose. As Williams was mowing down the field, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova, both 29, were also at the tournament playing doubles together—in the "legends" division. As much flak as Williams got for her extra-tennis activities, they have inoculated her from burnout and prolonged her career.
Not that she is motivated by history or records or her tennis legacy. "I didn't even know I was six on the [career Grand Slam list]," she said on Saturday. "I'm telling you I don't think about that kind of stuff. My thing is, I love my dogs; I love family; I love the movies; I love reading; I love shopping.... That's what I think about."
You admire the attitude but bristle at the narcissism? Well, you should be used to it. Name another athlete so hard to like and so hard to hate. Williams is opening a school in Kenya. No, wait, she's threatening to shove a "f------ ball" down the "f------ throat" of a lineswoman, earning a default in the semifinals of the 2009 U.S. Open and a $92,000 fine. She's apologizing to the aggrieved official and offering to give her "a big ol' hug." No, wait, after watching the U.S. soccer team get jobbed by a ref in the World Cup, she's tweeting, "I have never seen such injustice since I played us open [in] 2009." Surely she's the only athlete who can plug Jehovah and Gatorade in the same winner's speech—and sound heartfelt about both.
On June 24, when Queen Elizabeth II visited the All England Club for the first time in 33 years, Williams's match was banished to the back courts. While Wimbledon officials insisted it was not a personal slight—"It was a question of scheduling," said a club spokesman—it hardly went unnoticed. Just another indication that Serena is respected, yes; adored, not so much.
But, again, it's all on her terms. "I've never really cared what people said, how they said whether I should be playing tennis and hitting balls or whatever," Williams said. "At the end of the day, you have to go home and be happy."
The results don't speak for themselves. They scream.
If Williams was at her intimidating best on the women's side, Rafael Nadal duplicated her dominance in the men's draw. A year ago Nadal watched Wimbledon from the Spanish island of Majorca. Though he was the defending champion, his balky knees had forced him to take a break from the game, and he was even more pained by the recent breakup of his parents' marriage. "Tough moments," he called this period. He went the next 10 months without winning a title or fully regaining his health. There were murmurs that his moment had passed.
Not so fast. This spring Nadal won every tournament he entered on the clay-court circuit and took his fifth French Open singles trophy. He then made the seamless transition to grass, and on Sunday he seized his second Wimbledon title and eighth Grand Slam championship, beating the Czech Republic's Tomas Berdych in the final, 6--3, 7--5, 6--4. The 24-year-old Nadal is not just back. He's not just No. 1 again. Knees willing—and they have responded well to blood-spinning treatments, in which his own blood is reinjected into the sore spots—he should remain on top for years to come. "Every point he plays is like match point," says Bj√∂rn Borg, who won six French and five Wimbledon crowns. "That's why he's the champion right now."
The tournament hired an official poet this year—no, he never did find a rhyme for Wimbledon—and he could have drawn inspiration from Nadal's play. While Nadal can't replicate Roger Federer's artistry, he brings a different kind of beauty to the game. He has mastered the grass, volleying expertly, taking quick little steps to track down balls and toning down the spin on his strokes to accommodate low bounces.
Just as Nadal's game has evolved, and his trademark sleeveless T's and pirate shorts have been replaced by V-necks and preppy shorts, he has cut a more mature figure of late. With his girlfriend, Xisca Perello, in town, Nadal's rented home near the courts no longer resembled a frat house. Nadal is deeply superstitious and, like an old man, he prefers to stick to his routines. During the queen's visit, he politely declined a request to meet Her Majesty. "I have a lot of respect for this tournament," he says. "If I change the routines, I am not [going to win]."
As in any monarchy, one can ascend to the tennis throne only by supplanting someone else. In this case, Wimbledon 2010 might well have marked the dethronement of King Roger I. After five months of abundant losses (and no titles) on the ATP circuit, Federer was supposed to reacquaint himself with winning at Wimbledon, his personal grass fiefdom since 2003. But a few hours into the tournament he was within a game of elimination at the hands of a Colombian journeyman, Alejandro Falla. While Federer fought through, he was mowed down nine days later in the quarterfinals by Berdych.
Normally so graceful, Federer was graceless in defeat, dwelling on his injuries, stingy in his praise of Berdych. "If I'm healthy, I can handle those guys," he said of players who had beaten him of late. "They're not going to reinvent themselves in a year.'' You don't win 16 majors without a substantial amount of pride, but this was a new means of expression for Federer.
The loss dropped him behind Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the rankings, a depth to which he hadn't sunk since 2003. Yet write Federer off at your own peril. Any player that talented and complete will be a contender at majors until he retires. And though he's almost 29, it's a young 29, light as he is on his feet.
Still, there was an inescapable sense that his lease on tennis's penthouse had expired. It's Nadal's time now, even if he's reluctant to admit it publicly. "I don't think about 'greatest this' and 'rankings that,' " he says. "I just think about finding a way to win every match. The rest will come by itself."
That might be Serena's motto as well. It was early evening last Saturday before she finally left the club to celebrate still another title. Dressed in a shimmering white Burberry minidress and ringed by a large retinue of siblings, guests such as Vikings tackle Bryant McKinnie (just friends), a stylist, an agent and assorted hangers-on, she looked for all the world like a queen.
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Time and again Williams's brilliant play has been obscured by her theatrics and controversial behavior.
There was an inescapable sense that Federer's lease on tennis's penthouse had expired. It's Nadal's time.