Serena Williams has been winning Grand Slams for 14 years now, beginning with her maiden run to the title at the 1999 US Open, and she has now continued with major crown No. 17: her 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 victory over Victoria Azarenka in the 2013 US Open final.
Most of her elite peers have retired, but not the 31-year-old – she turns 32 in two weeks – who is still the game’s top player. Is there any rhyme or reason for it? Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, has a simple answer: “Because she’s not most of the players. She’s Serena Williams. There is only one.”
There will never be another one, either, and while there may come a time in the next 100 years or so when another U.S. player passes her and two other great American players – Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert – in number of Grand Slam singles titles, Williams will remain a unique competitor.
She is an extremely emotional person and player, as was demonstrated on Sunday, when she went from bellowing out ‘C’mons!’ at the top of her lungs to pushing her hand in a downward motion in an effort to calm herself so she could better focus on the task at hand.
“I just think sometimes when I say, ‘C’mon’ too much, I get out of breath actually,” she said. “So I really try to pace myself in terms of that. I try to keep everything to a minimum. I do have to be me, too. I do say ‘C’mon’ a lot. I'm pumped up on the court a lot. And also, I realize that if I'm not doing that I don't tend to do as well either. I just have find a happy medium.”
In the first two sets of her victory, she was volatile. And when Azarenka charged hard, coming back from a 1-4 deficit in the second set to grab the tiebreak, 8-6, Serena almost tiptoed out for the final set. She was controlled. She had a game plan in mind. And she was not going to litter the court with unforced errors anymore.
Azarenka has been playing spectacular defense and had briefly taken over the contest from inside the baseline. But while the Belarusian has won two Grand Slam titles and played in plenty of big matches, she still does not have the experience that Serena has, which has taught the American to try and take the long-term view in matches. A loss of one set is just that – the loss of one set. A new set is a sun-lit, green new pasture, even if it’s the finale of America’s Grand Slam.
“You could see at start of third set she calmed down, played bit slower and come back with a fresh mind,” Mouratoglou said. “Every time she finds a way to calm down, she finds solutions.”
And so she did. After both women held to start the third set, the contest quickly turned. Azarenka briefly lost her focus, and before she knew it, Serena was serving big and accurately, ripping her returns and controlling baseline rallies while her opponent’s energy level dropped. And as Azarenka’s level dropped, Serena grew in confidence. She decided that she did not need to over-hit and simply out-steadied her now erratic foe.
“I thought, 'This is outrageous that I'm still out here because I had a great opportunity to win already,'” Serena said. “So I thought, ‘You know what? I just have to relax, calm down and play smarter tennis.' The whole match I wasn't playing smart, and I needed to play better.”
That she did – and soon after, the fifth US Open title was hers. After winning the match, Serena let a scream of joy and later went to share hugs with her large team and support group, which contained Mouratoglou, as well as her mother Oracene Price, her sisters Venus, Lyndrea and Isha, her longtime hitting partner Sasha Bijan, her agent Jill Smoller and her trainer Esther Lee.
“They all really love me,” she said. “They all want to see me do great. That's everybody: my mom, my sisters, coach, everyone. And they get just as nervous I think as I do. They believe in me.”
Serena also believes in herself, even though there have been times in her career when she has had her doubts. When she won her first US Open title at the age of 17, she did so as a remarkable talent with no fear. She thought she understood the enormity of the occasion, but she really didn’t. Few teenagers do. But later on in their careers, great champions come to realize just how much effort it takes to win majors. It’s much more complicated than it appears, even for a player as good as Serena.
“When you're always trying to write history or join history, in my case, maybe you just get a little more nervous than you should,” she said. “I also think it's kind of cool because it means that it means a lot to you. It means a lot to me, this trophy, and every single trophy that I have. It makes me feel that I'm still fighting just to be a part of this fabulous sport.”
Serena has taken down plenty of excellent players en route to her US Open titles, including her sister Venus and former No. 1s Martina Hingis, Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport. While Azarenka’s resume is not yet as robust as those other champions, she had beaten Serena in two hard-court finals this season coming into the US Open, including just last month in Cincinnati.
Serena knew that she had a huge task at hand if she was going to be able to stave off the powerful, ambitious 24-year-old. So there would be no distractions during the fortnight. She was all tennis all the time, and she was able to complete another spectacular US Open journey.
“I was so focused these two‑and‑a‑half, three weeks really,” Serena said. “I have just been so focused and just really kind of crazy where I'm not losing – I'm never leaving my room and just really trying to stay in the zone and stay in the spirit. What's unique is just the fact of finally reaching No. 5 at the Open, so that's pretty cool.”