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Catching 22

Serena Williams's seventh Wimbledon title tied Steffi Graf'sGrand Slam mark, and inspired one writer to look into the future
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DEAR TAYLOR: I'm not sure that's your name, of course—just playing the odds here, kid. It's your grandfather. You're likely reading this on your iRetina or Oculus Rift XIV, which is great.

Indulge me in some storytelling: When Serena Williams was the queen bee of sports, we said that she was a once-in-a-generation athlete, the kind of champion "we'd tell our grandkids about." Well, we were right, and I figured I'd get started and jot down some reflections, long before you're born.

During her extended prime, Serena dominated women's tennis. She was Google to everyone else's Bing. (Taylor: Google "Bing.") She was a peerless athlete, who'd send shot after shot hissing across the net. Her first serve wasn't just the strongest in the history of women's tennis; it was the most fearsome single weapon possessed by anyone in sports at the time. Her skill was matched by her indomitable will. As she herself put it flatly, "Mentally, no one can break me."

Her unrivalled excellence was so enduring—her winning so ritual—that it didn't always get the appreciation it deserved. In some cases, journalists like me, having exhausted our inventory of adjectives and having written the same fundamental story about her so many times, resorted to conceits to try anew to chronicle Serena's persistent and consistent winning.

Anyway, Serena's singular greatness was thrown into sharp relief at the Wimbledon of 2016. Going into the tournament, she was still ranked No. 1, but she was getting on in years, about to exit the 18-to-34 demographic. Mired in what, by her standards, constituted a slump, she hadn't won a big title in a full year, stuck on 21 career majors, one behind Steffi Graf's Open-era record. It wasn't that Serena had lost her ability to smite the ball, or that her body was in a state of revolt. She would play deep into tournaments. But then, uncharacteristically, grow tighter than an Eagle Scout's knot. Before the tournament, Serena's coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, put the challenge this way: "Serena needs to meet herself again."

The introduction came at that 2016 fortnight in London. Serena returned to playing at an elevated level through the final. If the pressures of history and age were opponents, she treated them as she did the seven women she faced in the draw—she kicked their butts. In the final, Serena met Angelique Kerber of Germany, who had upset her in the Australian Open final six months earlier, and exacted revenge, playing a dazzling match and winning 7--5, 6--3.

Throughout the tournament, Serena still sometimes showed her complexity, the kaleidoscopic range of both her game and her emotions. In the early rounds, there were moments when she was far from her best, spraying shots and projecting dissatisfaction. But each time she stalled, she'd hot-wire the engine, betraying her long underrated problem-solving skills.

She didn't win her first few matches so much as she overcame her own anxiety. It beat the alternative, which was on display in the men's draw. Like Serena, Novak Djokovic had been the Goliath to everyone's David, and came to London having won the last four majors. Yet in his third-round match, against Sam Querrey of the U.S., Djokovic looked distracted and unfocused. His startlingly limp four-set loss underscored how fraught every match can be—even the best players can have a bad day at the office. It also underscored just how dialed in Serena had been all those years.

Look at Serena through the prism of the great Roger Federer. He was born almost two months before her, in the summer of 1981. Federer had remained a force into his early 30s, but what was once a steady stream of victories in majors slowed to a trickle. At Wimbledon 2016 he reached the semifinals, all but hijacking the tournament. But then, time did its cruel dance and, looking almost arthritic by the fifth set, he lost to Milos Raonic, a Canadian almost a decade his junior, who then lost to Andy Murray in the final. Contrast this with Serena, who has won nine majors since turning 30, feeding on all those millennials and their outsized sense of entitlement.

During the early rounds, Serena wasn't always on her best behavior. In her second match, she both smashed and tossed her racket, resulting in a $10,000 fine (a lot of money back then!) and eliciting whistles from the crowd. Then again, as someone wise once said, "Well-behaved women seldom make history." After that bit of self-motivation, she improved and didn't drop a set.

Beyond the tennis, watching Serena in 2016 offered plenty of life lessons that we grandparents relish imparting. On her last point of the tournament, she charged to the net and knocked off a winning volley. Even—maybe especially—when the end is near, keep charging forward. A few hours later, Serena teamed with her sister Venus to win the doubles event. Family first. It was their 14th Slam title in 14 trips to a final, a record even better than Serena's 22--6 mark in singles finals. Meet the moment.

At Wimbledon, Serena sent a reminder that she is the boss. Not least to herself. She admitted to me afterwards, "When I lose, I don't feel as good about myself. But then I have to remind myself: You are Serena Williams."

And with that, she was off to Rio and then the U.S. Open—the tournament she won for the first time in 1999. Oh, and in September she'd turn 35, but who cares? Federer aside, it's a reminder of one of tennis's many virtues, something that you should hold dear: Time is largely irrelevant. As long as no one beats you on the last point, you win.

Love, Grandpa

GO FIGURE

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